Return of the Guru

Global Warming to Cause Colder Winters?

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, November 18, 2010

Most of us would agree that scientific and scholarly research is a noble undertaking. The relentless pursuit of reproducible results allows us to make what we hope will be accurate predictions about our areas of study.

Such scholarly activity does have its down side, however, in that once we are committed to a certain idea or paradigm, we will tend to stick with it—even if subsequent research tends to cast doubt on it. This is the bind that many researchers find themselves caught in today when it comes to climate change. As more research is done, it becomes more and more difficult to sustain previous pronouncements about the future of our planet’s climate. Yet scientists who have, in a sense, staked their reputations on such forecasts are loath to change them. As a result, those to whom such projections could be vital—such as carriers who offer weather damage-related coverages—may be confused over which way to turn.

Witness the following story as reported in Science Daily. It seems the overall warming of Earth's northern half could result in cold winters, new research shows. “The shrinking of sea-ice in the eastern Arctic causes some regional heating of the lower levels of air—which may lead to strong anomalies in atmospheric airstreams, triggering an overall cooling of the northern continents, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

“These anomalies could triple the probability of cold winter extremes in Europe and northern Asia,” says Vladimir Petoukhov, lead author of the study and climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

On its face, it seems ridiculous that warmer temperatures could result in colder temperatures, but not so, say the scientists. “Recent severe winters like last year's or the one of 2005-06 do not conflict with the global warming picture, but rather supplement it,” Mr. Petoukhov insists. He then launches into a detailed explanation of how this is possible, deferring to his team’s computer simulations.

Let’s apply a little common sense here. Assuming Mr. Petoukhov is correct, if there are warmer temperatures that—though the influence of arctic ice and ocean temperature—become colder temperatures, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the northern hemisphere is, in fact, experiencing global cooling? Of course it would. If scientists did that, however, they would have their anthropogenic global warming colleagues at their throats, so instead they play games with wording and esoteric reasoning.

The unfortunate part of all this for insurers is that it is hard to know what to believe. Insurers who bought into the whole global warming scenario from the beginning and made their own projections based on a warmer northern hemisphere are now stuck between a rock and a colder northern half. Are carriers willing to stake their future business strategies on the unpredictable fluctuations of climate research as a scientific field? Suddenly the risk profile may seem a bit too prominent.

As I have previously said many times, weather patterns are hard enough to predict for the next week—much less for the next 100 years. But don’t take my word for it. Perhaps the most telling confirmation of this comes from Mr. Petoukhov himself, who notes in the Science Daily report: “I suppose nobody knows how harsh this year's winter will be.”

Insurers are thus left to roll the dice on weather-related strategy. And maybe that would be the wisest course. Odds gets you colder climates; evens means warmer—unless it’s boxcars, which splits the planet in two on climate change. Snake eyes, on the other hand, means that something is likely to come back to bite you.

Good luck!

Ara C. Trembly ( is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at

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