To Test for Climate Disasters: Build Stuff, Then Blow It Apart

A cannon-like device, the launcher hurls chunks of wood — meant to simulate debris flying at 100 miles an hour, 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,” Mr. 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 ½-inch plywood didn’t do well; the projectile went clear through it, like an arrow through an apple.

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“Fail,” Mr. Gritzo said. (To have a reasonable chance of surviving a hurricane, the plywood would need to be closer to one 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.


Mr. Gritzo examined roof shingles after a test. The lab has equipment that can generate winds up to 160 miles per hour.

Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Scientists have warned that climate change is a threat to America’s 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 impact of storm surge.

Mr. 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 four-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.

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