Tornadoes, storms, and superstorms – yes, it’s global warming.

  • Published on May 21st, 2013

tornato devastation from Moore, OK

Yesterday, I wrote Yes, global warming IS giving us bigger, more devastating tornadoes, in response to the horrific devastation in Moore, Oklahoma.

And the usual jerks came out, accusing me of everything from being a retard to being a despicable liberal using the bodies of dead children to push my climate change agenda.

It would have been nice if any of these jerks had read what I actually said before accusing me of being totally ignorant, wrong, and evil.

What I said was, “Yes, climate change and global warming are giving us bigger, badder, and more costly storms.”

And the reason I gave for that is, “The connection is simple: Heat energy is what drives storms. The more heat energy you have in the system, the bigger the storms will be. the bigger the storms are, the greater the devastation. And the cost. And the loss of life.”

That’s just basic thermodynamics.

And last time I checked, that was NOT in any dispute – after Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York and New Jersey with unprecedented devastation, it was the business-friendly Bloomberg Magazine that ran with the cover, “It’s climate change, stupid”.

Now, we have unprecedented devastation in Oklahoma. Bigger, badder, more devastating – described as at the top end of EF5 (the top end of the tornado scale), with 200-mile-per-hour winds.

Even conservative climate-denying Senator James Inhofe couldn’t just downplay it. “So many things happen that are so hard to explain,” he admitted on CNN. “This thing was huge. This is one of the largest ones that we’ve had… What you’re looking at now in Moore, Oklahoma is what you could have seen had you been there in 1999 or in some parts of of Shawnee. Devastation is devastation. And it’s just that this is so much worse. Because you’re talking about a two mile by 20 mile area. That’s very unusual.”

The problem with coming up with any kind of significant statistics when it comes to tornadoes is: those suckers are RARE. There have only been 59 EF5 tornadoes in the past 60 years. Separating out meaningful statistics from the background noise of random chance is going to be next to impossible – for either the climate hawk or climate denier side.

As  wrote just two months ago,

 One only needs to look to the past two tornado seasons to realize just how fickle Mother Nature can be from one year to the next.

After a record 2011 tornado season, which was the deadliest since 1953 and featured a whopping 1,690 tornadoes — the second-highest tornado count since 1953 — 2012 saw comparatively little tornado activity, with just 939 tornadoes. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012 also saw a below-average fatality count.

What caused the drop last year? Probably the intense drought that baked the great plains all summer. No moisture, no thunderstorms; no thunderstorms, no tornadoes. Since the drought may well have been related to global warming, I could even reasonably make the claim that “Climate change could lead to fewer tornadoes overall!”

But that wasn’t what I was talking about. I was going to a more basic level, the thermodynamics and science of tornado formation. And here’s what the NOAA has to say about that:

“….most tornadoes are related to the strength of a thunderstorm, and thunderstorms normally gain most of their energy from solar heating and latent heat released by the condensation of water vapor… as a whole, the months in which tornadoes are most likely correspond to the times of year with increased solar heating and strong frontal systems.”

Simple enough to understand? Tornadoes get their energy from heat. If there is more heat in the system, whatever tornadoes that DO form will have more energy to work with. This will vary from day to day, but overall, if the climate heats up, there will be more energy in the system.

So why doesn’t the NOAA say “Global warming will lead to bigger, more devastating tornadoes?” To understand that, you have to understand the difference between formal science, and how we humans make decisions.

Science is inherently conservative – and I do not use that term in any sort of disparaging way.  With science, you only make a claim once you have been able to examine evidence fully, document it, and reach definitive conclusions.

If you ask a scientist, “Will the sun rise in the east tomorrow?”, she would NOT be able to give you a definitive “Yes” or “No” answer – she would merely be able to say that all the evidence points to that being the likely outcome.

Here’s what the National Science and Technology Council’s Scientific Assessment on Climate Change has to say on tornadoes:

“Trends in other extreme weather events that occur at small spatial scales–such as tornadoes, haillightning, and dust storms–cannot be determined at the present time due to insufficient evidence.”

This is NOT the same as saying, “Climate change has NO effect on tornadoes.” This means what it says: Any affect that climate change has on tornado formation is too difficult for us to tease out of the data, primarily because we still don’t KNOW enough about tornado formation.

Here’s the NOAA’s augmentation of that statement:

This is because tornadoes are short-fused weather, on the time scale of seconds and minutes, and a space scale of fractions of a mile across. In contrast, climate trends take many years, decades, or millennia, spanning vast areas of the globe. The numerous unknowns dwell in the vast gap between those time and space scales. Climate models cannot resolve tornadoes or individual thunderstorms. They can indicate broad-scale shifts in three of the four favorable ingredients for severe thunderstorms (moisture, instability and wind shear), but as any severe weather forecaster can attest, having some favorable factors in place doesn’t guarantee tornadoes. Our physical understanding indicates mixed signals–some ingredients may increase (instability), while others may decrease (shear), in a warmer world. The other key ingredient (storm-scale lift), and to varying extents moisture, instability and shear, depend mostly on day-to-day patterns, and often, even minute-to-minute local weather. Finally, tornado record-keeping itself also has been prone to many errors and uncertainties, doesn’t exist for most of the world, and even in the U. S., only covers several decades in detailed form.

Which means two things:

  1. We cannot state with scientific accuracy, for the purposes of peer-reviewed papers, what effect climate change is going to have on tornadoes
  2. Anyone who says “The empirical evidence betrays you” is engaging in wishful thinking, and certainly doesn’t have the empirical evidence to back up his position.

After I wrote my post yesterday, the deniers were very happy to trot out their “evidence”, which did nothing to bolster their case. Data doesn’t count if it knocks down a straw man that nobody cares about, or is flat out WRONG.

Let’s see how that works:

Comment: Why do alarmists never like actual data? The NOAA has beautiful graphs showing that tornado frequency is unchanged since the 1970s, and DECREASED over the past 100 years.

I didn’t argue one way or the other about tornado frequency – it varies wildly from year to year, and as mentioned, there is even a chance that global warming will reduce two of the ingredients that spawn tornadoes (of all sizes) – atmospheric moisture and wind shear

HOWEVER, the record year for total number of tornadoes ranked EF1 or above was…  2011 (including SIX of the intense and destructive EF5 twisters – the kind we normally only see once a year). It was also the deadliest year in the modern era (550 deaths)

Also, note how the commenter cherry-picked the time frame – he can say “unchanged since the 1970s” precisely because there was an insane peak in tornado activity in 1974 – which also means compared to any OTHER baseline year, you could say tornadoes ARE way up (based on the peak in 2011).

And as for a decrease over 100 years – I have no idea what the real tornado count was 100 years ago, and neither does the commenter.

Comment: I just simply want to use common sense.There are no more tornadoes today than 40 or 50 years ago. There are more digital cameras and smartphones today for shooting them. In average, there are 1000 to 1200 twisters every year in USA….

Sorry, 2011 was the peak year for tornadoes. Still.

…I remenber the tornadoes outbreak of April 3-4 1974. About 350 people were killed. The concept of global warming did not even exist back then. Don’t tell me there are more twisters today than 40 years ago, that’s simply false. About the size of the twister that devastated a suburb of Oklahoma City May 20th, It’s maybe an EF4 or EF5 but it’s not unusual in this state to see a twister this size.

Of course global warming existed back then.

As for your other points – Sorry, 2011 was the peak year for tornadoes. Still. And we still only get about 1 EF5 per year on average, and this one was about as big an EF5 as we’ve EVER seen. “Not unusual”? Try again.

Comment: I suggest you check the facts about the reduction of tornados, before making up outragious lies like that.

… And the commenter’s link  takes us to the climate-denier blog Watts up with that?, which walks us through a series of studies… most of which are more than ten years old, and most of which are regional studies (of just Missouri, or just Alberta, Canada) which show about what we’d expect – nothing more than random noise compared to the overall climate (see NOAA comments, above).

…. But they also note this study, Diffenbaugh et al. (2008), which indicates:

“the number of tornadoes reported in the United States per year has been increasing steadily (~14 per year) over the past half century.”

chart of total tornadoes, USSo the deniers then have to go to the “Maybe that’s because of better coverage and cell phones” argument.

Note the tactic – “There’s NO EVIDENCE to back up the argument you didn’t even make, you moron… oh, and the evidence that does exist doesn’t count.”

Commenter: I sincerely suggest you go back to school and learn basic thermodynamics before attempting to apply them to weather patterns

Basic thermodynamics? You mean the kind that says:

“….most tornadoes are related to the strength of a thunderstorm, and thunderstorms normally gain most of their energy from solar heating and latent heat released by the condensation of water vapor… as a whole, the months in which tornadoes are most likely correspond to the times of year with increased solar heating and strong frontal systems.”

Oh yeah. THOSE thermodynamics.

Commenter: actually tornado activity is at ALL TIME LOW last 12 months. Please do your research first.

True, tornadoes HAVE dropped off sharply. As discussed above, this probably has a lot to do with the (likely-global-warming-related) massive midwest drought that has been parching the prairies. You can’t make any sort of scientific argument by cherry-picking one month or one year and saying “Look, look, there’s a great big blizzard so GLOBAL WARMING IS A HOAX.”

That’s moronic.

Finally, I’d like to comment on the difference between scientific certainty (for publication purposes) verses the kind of decision-making we do to protect our homes and families.

If the sheriff drives up to your house and says, “Flood waters are rising, I’m here to get you and your family out of here before you all drown,” you are entitled to demand evidence. You can question his assumptions. You can accuse him of scare-mongering. You can even decide the whole thing is a hoax designed by greedy scientists who just want more of your money. You can tell the sheriff to get the hell off your property, because you’re not going anywhere based on an alarmist hoax.

But your children will drown.

Here’s Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, today (via):

“So, you may have a question for me – Why do you care? Why do you, Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, care if we Republicans run off the climate cliff like a bunch of proverbial lemmings and disgrace ourselves? I’ll tell you why. We’re stuck in this together. We are stuck in this together. When cyclones tear up Oklahoma and hurricanes swamp Alabama and wildfires scorch Texas, you come to us, the rest of the country, for billions of dollars to recover. And the damage that your polluters and deniers are doing doesn’t just hit Oklahoma and Alabama and Texas. It hits Rhode Island with floods and storms. It hits Oregon with acidified seas, it hits Montana with dying forests. So, like it or not, we’re in this together.” (Read the whole speech here.)

97 percent of climate scientists say climate change is real, and humans are feeding the problem with CO2 from fossil fuels. This is going to cause a whole bunch of problems, including bigger and more devastating storms.

You don’t have to believe. But get the hell out of the way while we’re trying to fix things.

Do Something:

  • THE REGIONAL FOOD BANK OF OKLAHOMA or text the word “food” to 32333 to donate $10
  • Feeding America: Call 1-800-910-5524, or donate online here.
  • Red Cross: (Central and Western Oklahoma region): Text “REDCROSS” to 90999 to make a $10 donation to victims.
  • The Blood Center of Central TexasGo here to learn how you can donate blood.
  • SAFE AND WELL – a resource to help those effected find each other

 

(Image via Moore Oklahoma Recovery Facebook page.)

 

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.

8 comments

  • Interesting chart about the frequency of tornadoes. It’s a pity it doesn’t really support what you have been writing.

    The chart in this link does not show *all* tornadoes, it just shows the ones that are F3 or stronger over roughly the same period:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/05/21/a-short-history-of-violent-tornadoes-in-the-united-states/

    Notice that 5 of the 6 years with at least 80 F3+ tornadoes were all prior to 1975. Please also note that *all* of the years in which there were *fewer* than 30 F3+ tornadoes occur since 1978, with 7 of those 12 years after 1995.

    A clear-headed (and open-minded) analysis of the two charts shows that the *number* of tornadoes has been increasing, but the *severity* of those tornadoes has been dropping.

    This is completely opposite to what you are trying to get us to believe is happening.

    • Did I say “There will be MORE tornadoes?”
      I didn’t. Because
      1) Tornadoes are rare enough and there is wide enough variation from year to year that it’s going to be hard to tell an increase from statistical noise, and
      2) Climate change is increasing one factor in tornado FORMATION (moisture) while decreasing another (wind shear)

      BUT – once tornadoes form, what gives them power is the ENERGY in the SYSTEM – ie, the HEAT. With climate change and rising temperatures, the powerful tornadoes that DO form will have more energy.

      Plain and simple.

      Read the description of the Norman tornado. Everyone says things like “Bigger and stronger than anything I’ve ever seen before.”

      Just like Hurricane Sandy was bigger and stronger than anyone had ever seen before.

      And this is going to keep happening, because there is MORE ENERGY IN THE SYSTEM.

      • The NOAA chart you included in your article clearly showed that there are more tornadoes being *reported* every year (this does not mean that there are more tornadoes than in the 1950s, just that more are being detected/reported), so it is reasonable to conclude that you were implying as much because, otherwise, you would not have included it.

        The chart I selected (from the same source) clearly shows that the number of *strong* tornadoes is decreasing every year, which means that there is less energy being transferred on any given day.

        This energy source for tornadoes is solely due to a temperature difference between where tornadoes originate and where they finally dissipate.

        What this means is that, for a really strong tornado to appear, *global* warming cannot be happening, because if the entire world is getting warmer at the same time, then we will be getting weaker, and fewer, tornadoes.

        For the Norman tornado to form, we had to have *regional* warming (which isn’t that remarkable).

        • Global warming will not be uniform. Obviously.

          And – as I said – the chart you selected from shows between 0 and 5 strong tornadoes a year. With that tiny number, there’s know what to know what the trend is, and what’s just noise.

          In the meantime, we’ve had another EF5 since this article posted, and it was the BIGGEST ever recorded, at 2.6 MILES across! That’s not the track of the damage – that’s the WIDTH OF THE FUNNEL. We’ve never seen storms like this before. Ever.

          Just as the regional warming that you find unremarkable is bigger and stronger than ever before, with a record number of record highs set last year all across the country. That doesn’t mean there will be NO record lows set… but it does mean that OVERALL there is more ENERGY in the system.

          And sorry, but if you have a really intense warm front, it does NOT guarantee that the cold front it slams into will be weak. Global warming, and climate, and chaotic systems don’t work that way. It COULD be milder – but it might be even more intense.

          Energy drives powerful storms. And feeds them so that they grow more powerful. This is just basic thermodynamics.

          • Jeremy, the chart that you chose to post is clearly not consistent with actual tornado activity in the United States, and it seems obvious that it was chosen to imply a dramatic increase in violent storms due to global warming. As Jeff pointed out, the data shows no increase in severe F3 and F3+ tornadoes, or for that matter worldwide hurricanes and cyclones by any measurement. You do the cause of environmentalism a disservice, in my opinion, my not accurately reporting the data.

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