April 2011 set a new record for the most tornadoes in any month, with 875 tornadoes – nearly three times the next most active April, and well ahead of the previous record of 542 tornadoes set in May 2003. May has brought it’s fair share of deadly and devastating tornadoes in the southern and central portions of the U.S. It’s got a lot of people wondering …
1. Is climate change to blame for this spring’s tornado outbreaks?
There’s no quick and easy answer here. Warm air and water temperatures can contribute to stronger storms and more extreme precipitation, and many well-respected climate scientists have been drawing a link. A team of NOAA researchers responsible for trying to link specific extreme weather events to climate change has done a quick analysis of three specific factors that influence tornado formation and concluded there’s no long-term trend toward increasingly tornado-friendly conditions in the affected region. But they note that theirs is a “preliminary assessment” and “isn’t the same as saying ‘Climate change has had no impact on tornado outbreaks.’”
A lot has been written on this topic in recent days. For a deeper exploration of the issue, I highly recommend Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog. He’s got a conversation going with input from the aforementioned NOAA Climate Attribution Rapid Response team and prominent climate scientists, like Kevin Trenberth (National Center for Atmospheric Research), Kerry Emanuel (MIT), and Gavin Schmidt (NASA, RealClimate blog). Revkin tends toward the skeptical – not about the reality of climate change, but about its role in the numerous natural disasters of the past year. But the important voices are all there. And he makes a good point about the vulnerabilities that such disasters reveal. Which brings me to the next question …
2. What do tornado outbreaks mean for those of us outside tornado alley?
The natural disasters of the past year – whether it’s tornadoes or flooding or deadly heat waves – hold a warning. While the jury is still out on the relationship between climate change and recent tornado outbreaks, scientists are quite clear that temperatures are rising and a warmer world will be one with more extreme weather. Put extreme weather in the same place as human development and you get natural disasters.
The nature of the disasters depends on the location. Some will see flooding, others drought. The mid-west may get tornadoes, while the east coast gets hurricanes. The point is, changes will happen everywhere, and already are happening in many places.
Natural disasters, like the tornado outbreaks of the past two months – whether or not they are specifically linked to climate change – highlight our collective vulnerability and the need to begin finding ways to cope with natural disasters that we can reasonably expect to increase in coming years.