In the backwoods of Rhode Island, a team of researchers spends whole days trying to destroy things: setting boxes on fire, shattering chunks of ice, hurling debris through the air at hurricane speed.
They work for an insurance company, FM Global, and the pandemonium simulates the hazards that are expected to strike with increasing frequency in this age of extreme weather.
“There’s a realization that hazards are changing, and we need to understand that,” said Louis Gritzo, the lab’s research manager, who has spent his career studying deadly risks. “This year will be a tipping point.”
Insurers have been vocal in warning of the dangers posed by climate change. Last year, total economic losses from natural disasters — many of them linked to climate change — reached $175 billion worldwide, the highest since 2012, according to reinsurer Swiss Re.
This year’s tally is expected to be much larger. The hurricanes that tore through the southeastern United States alone caused as much as $245 billion in damage, risk modeling firm RMS has estimated. Swiss Re said it expected 2017 to be one of the costliest years — if not the most costly — for natural disasters, and that was before raging fires hit Southern California, scorching more than 158,000 acres across four counties so far.
The high stakes put insurance companies “on the front lines” of climate change, said Donald Hornstein, a professor of insurance and environmental law at the University of North Carolina. “For them, this isn’t politics. The reality of losses that take place from weather is real.”
So, Gritzo and his team spend their days putting all kinds of roofs, decks, walls and other structural defenses through extreme testing.
“This job is an engineer’s dream,” said Scott Holmes, an assistant vice president on the technical team. “You get to build stuff, then you get to blow them up.”
They focus on protecting what researchers refer to as the “envelope” of a building — its roof, walls and other physical boundaries that separate its interior from the outside world.
“The first thing for hurricane exposure is protect the envelope of your building, the outside of that building. You’ve got to keep that building sealed,” Gritzo said. “Because when the wind gets inside, it tears up everything inside, and the rain gets inside, and soaks everything.”
To simulate uplift from hurricane winds — “wind can literally lift your roof off,” Gritzo said — researchers pump air under roof assemblies. During a test for a client, a rubber roof withstood pressure of almost 200 pounds per square foot before its fittings gave way and it burst out of its moorings with a loud pop.
Researchers also test roof shingles, blasting them for two hours at a time with a 350-horsepower machine that generates winds up to 160 mph. “You want a roof that withstands the forces of Mother Nature,” Gritzo said.
To recreate the wrath of hailstorms, researchers used a device that fired off 2-inch spheres of ice against roofs. One ball of ice shattered instantaneously, leaving behind a large pockmark on the roof. Hailstorms, researchers said, were a recent concern, especially across the Midwest.
Then, there is the projectile missile launcher.
A cannonlike device, the launcher hurls chunks of wood — meant to simulate debris flying at 100 mph, or about the speed of a Category 2 hurricane — at a target about 20 feet away. “You could get debris, tree limbs, stop signs, pieces of your neighbor’s roof, all coming at you,” Gritzo said.
On the cue of “Fire!” an 8-foot-long piece of lumber flew across the lab toward a piece of plywood, the kind that might be used to board up the windows of a home or business. The 1/2-inch plywood didn’t do well; the projectile went clear through it, like an arrow through an apple.
“Fail,” Gritzo said. (To have a reasonable chance of surviving a hurricane, the plywood would need to be closer to 1 inch thick.)
The team also burns things: plastics, huge rolls of paper, whiskey barrels, car parts, even frozen dinners. FM Global’s fire lab, where a musky odor of soot hangs in the air, can perform detailed analysis of the emissions that result — often a toxic mix of hydrocarbons and other chemicals.
Scientists have warned that climate change is a threat to the United States’ forests, with rising temperatures, drying trees and earlier-melting of snow contributing to a growing number of extreme wildfires. The recent wine country fires in California caused widespread losses of commercial property in addition to the devastation they brought to residential neighborhoods.
The risks of flooding, which wreaked havoc during Hurricane Harvey, bring a whole other layer of testing and preparations. While the relationship between climate change and hurricanes is complicated, it is becoming clear that a warming planet will produce wetter storms, while sea level rise will worsen the effect of storm surge.
Gritzo grills companies over their flood preparedness, making executives wear virtual reality goggles programmed to transform the lab into a flood zone, with muddy water licking at the walls.
Flood-proofing a regular 4-foot door would require piling up 250 50-pound sandbags, a highly labor-intensive task. The bags also become contaminated from the floodwaters, generating mountains of waste.
Instead, FM Global presses its clients to install waterproof barriers. Other flooding tips are simple, like parking the elevator on the second floor before evacuating a building, saving mechanical and electrical equipment from the floodwater.
One company that saw its investment in flood protection pay off was juice company Ocean Spray, which took FM Global’s advice and strengthened its buildings and bought portable generators for backup power. Those preparations meant that when powerful storms rolled through Florida in 2004 and 2005, the company was mostly unscathed.
“Their building was intact, their backup generators came on, and their juice was still cold,” Gritzo said. “They gained a lot of market share, because they were ready to go.”