Much like when the police call in a crime-scene investigation unit to probe suspected foul play, many knowledgeable insurers, when faced with questionable weather-related claims, are turning to forensic meteorologists for expert help.

A catastrophic or other meteorological event can often involve more than one weather element. Forensic meteorologists can sift the data to determine the magnitudes of each weather element at the exact location of loss. Provided with such information, insurers can determine the exact cause of damage to verify that the claim is covered under the active policy.

Forensic meteorology can be applied to a vast array of claims and weather events:

o Lightning: Meteorologists can verify the exact position of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes to determine, for example, whether a thunderbolt could have hit and destroyed a heat pump.

o Hail: Forensics can check whether there were ice pellets on a particular date, where they fell, and whether they were large enough to be the cause of windshield damage at a car dealership.

o Catastrophic events: After a hurricane, if a claim is submitted from an area where very few other claims were filed, forensic meteorologists verify the magnitude of the hurricane at that specific location.

o Wind: After a tree falls and damages a house, forensics can determine whether high winds were the cause–as opposed to the tree toppling because it was dead and rotted.

o Temperature: After pipes in a house burst, forensics can determine whether the cause was due to below-freezing temperatures or faulty plumbing.

o Auto Claims: Forensic meteorologists can determine what the exact weather conditions were after a claim in an auto accident involving snow, ice, rain or wind.

o Sun glare: When motorists say they were blinded by glare before an accident, forensics can verify the exact position of the sun in the sky and determine if the sun was obstructed by cloud cover or other conditions, as well as the weather-related visibility for the accident location.

In applying their science, the scope and type of claim determines what resources meteorologists require for their investigation. Forensic meteorologists analyze daily and hourly surface observations, surface weather maps, upper air data, and archived National Weather Service watches, warnings and forecasts to produce a general overview of past weather conditions for a particular area.

Having a general overview is only the first step–the next one is to acquire precise weather data for the exact location of a claim. To do this, forensic meteorologists obtain archived Doppler radar imagery, satellite imagery, and official storm reports of severe and unusual weather.

A review of these data resources, combined with their knowledge of meteorology and local climatology, enables forensic meteorologists to accurately determine weather conditions for an exact location. For example, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Central Gulf Coast in late August 2005, many insurers quickly realized the importance of knowing the precise cause of damage.

Many insurance policies did not cover rising waters from storm surge but did cover “windstorm” damage. Insurers turned to forensic meteorologists for the last word.

Forensic experts can determine the progression and magnitude of different weather elements throughout an event. In the case of Katrina, forensic meteorologists determined the magnitudes of storm surge and wind speeds for exact locations.

In the United States, the average yearly number of billion-dollar weather-related catastrophes (costs normalized to 2007 dollars) has increased threefold from 1980-1991 to the most recent period, 1992-2007. With this continued increase in costly weather events anticipated, fraud-related costs can also be expected to rise.

But insurers have an advantage because policyholders who submit fraudulent weather-related claims are generally unaware that forensic weather investigation can be employed to reveal their fiction. They assume weather conditions cannot be verified at an exact location.

In addition, many policyholders exploit weather catastrophes by filing claims for unrelated damage.

Today, many insurers have joined forces with forensic weather companies to protect themselves from fraud. Forensic meteorology serves as an invaluable resource in three areas of insurance weather claim investigation: suspicious claims, costly catastrophic events, and determining if damage is a covered- or excluded loss.

Insurers reach out for these experts because when evaluating weather-related claims, many have seen firsthand the costs of a “do-it-yourself” approach.

When investigating past weather conditions, insurance professionals are limited to a finite number of weather data reporting sites. But the chance of weather-related claims occurring at precisely one of these reporting sites is extremely unlikely.

Forensic meteorologists have the expertise to determine inaccuracies that frequently exist in data that is available to the general public. They also have access to many more resources and the knowledge to interpret those resources. The interpretation of these resources allows forensic meteorologists to pinpoint weather conditions at the exact location of incident, even when the nearest reporting site may be several miles away.

Having limited information, insurers often find themselves trying to reconstruct weather conditions with incomplete and possibly inaccurate information. Forensic meteorologists save insurers time in reconstructing weather conditions and lend expert credibility to the findings.

In addition to past weather investigation, forensic meteorologists support all of their findings with certifiable weather records and expert witness testimony.

On occasion, the rejection of a claim results in a lawsuit against the insurer. A forensic meteorologist’s expert analysis protects the insurers and will often discourage lawsuits from being filed.

If a lawsuit does ensue and the case proceeds to trial, forensic meteorologists testify to the weather conditions in question. The role of a forensic meteorologist in court is to explain in clearly understandable terms to a judge or jury the weather conditions that occurred at the location of claim and to express their expert opinions.

With fraud costing the insurance industry billions per year, carriers must continue to search for cost-effective ways to combat this activity. Forensic meteorologists can be a significant part of the solution by eliminating weather-related fraudulent claims through comprehensive verification for the location of claim.

Forensic meteorologists should be used as a tool for saving insurers significant time and money, by providing thorough and invaluable weather verification.

“Insurers have an advantage because policyholders who submit fraudulent weather-related claims are generally unaware that forensic weather investigation can be employed to reveal their fiction.”

B. Steven Roberts