Climate change and tornado research, unlike heat waves and floods, is still in its early stages.
Tornadoes have lately struck the United States and are among the deadliest and most damaging in history. On Monday, the death toll in Kentucky, the hardest-hit state, reached 80, with dozens more missing.
The scale of the devastation and the timing of the tornadoes, which occurred late in the year (usually tornadoes occur in the spring and summer), are prompting speculation about whether climate change played a role in this tragic event.
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“This has been one of the most impactful weather events I’ve experienced in my 40 years as a meteorologist,” says Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with the Yale Climate Connections news service. “‘Isn’t there a safe season?’ I wondered as I watched these storms on Friday night. Tornadoes of epic proportions in December. That completely blew my head.”
Unlike heat waves and floods, the link between a warming globe and tornadoes is complex and ambiguous. Scientists have proposed a number of theories to explain how tornado behavior can alter. Tornadoes are possible in December, and they could spread into the southeastern United States. It remains to be seen whether climate change will increase the intensity or frequency of tornadoes.
According to data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the total number of tornadoes detected has increased since 1950, but experts argue this is mostly due to better technology, such as Doppler radar. Over time, there has been no discernible rise in the frequency of big tornadoes.
Since 1950, for example, 59 of the most severe F5 tornadoes have struck the United States. However, if the storm that wreaked havoc in Kentucky was an F5, it would be the first since 2013, ending the longest time on record without one of the deadly tornadoes.
According to Victor Gensini, an extreme weather expert at Northern Illinois University in the United States, given the ubiquitous influence of global warming on the atmosphere, it makes likely that this would also have an impact on tornadoes.
“It’s preferable to start from the premise that climate change has played a role,” he argues, rather than asking, “Did climate change create this tornado?” “Begin with the assumption that climate change influences all extreme events.”
The Evolution of Tornado Meteorology
It helps to understand how warm, moist air flowing beneath chilly, dry air generates unstable atmospheric conditions to comprehend how scientists predict that climate change is causing tornadoes.
When warm air rises over cold air, wind shear—a rapid change in speed, direction, or both—can cause the rising air to spin like a top, resulting in a tornado.
As the temperature warms, the heat in the atmosphere rises, releasing more energy that can be used to produce tornadoes. Large December tornadoes are unusual since December is typically chilly, but the United States is seeing unusually hot weather this year, particularly over the Gulf of Mexico, where the moisture that drives tornado-forming storms begins.
“The Gulf is on fire,” says Gensini. “We looked at the weather maps on Friday morning and it looked like a spring day.” On the same day, record temperatures were set in Memphis, Tennessee, and a tornado swept across a portion of the state. It’s unclear how climate change will affect the winds that create tornadoes.
Warmer temperatures may reduce the wind shear that causes tornadoes; the Arctic is warming faster than lower latitudes, lessening the temperature disparity and making the jet stream’s winds weaker overall. The wind shear is weaker as a result of this.
Masters says, “No one knows how this is going to evolve.” When the conditions are right for a tornado, though, Masters believes that increased heat means “bigger outbreaks can develop because there is more energy” stored. That implies there may be more time between tornado outbreaks, but there may be more tornadoes spinning when one does happen. According to one study, the average number of tornadoes every outbreak has increased throughout the decades.
Tornado study is problematic because tornadoes often occur on much smaller scales than other types of extreme weather, making it difficult to draw firm results. Smaller tornadoes have historically been more difficult to observe, resulting in an insufficient database to compare to actual tornadoes. While the tornado that struck Kentucky traveled more than 321 kilometers in about three hours, smaller tornadoes have historically been more difficult to observe, resulting in an insufficient database to compare to actual tornadoes.
Adapting to risk
In more populous states like Kentucky and Arkansas, a research released in 2018 looked at tornado measurements dating back to 1979 and found a change in tornado positions from slightly west of the Mississippi River to slightly east of the river.
“Climate change, we believe, is to blame. However, it’s also possible that it’s due to natural variation “According to the study’s author, Gensini. “We go on the scale and see that we’ve gained ten pounds, but we’re not sure if it’s due to a bad diet or a lack of activity.”
If storms become more prevalent in more densely populated sections of the country, even a minor geographic shift could have huge implications. A tornado that hits a cornfield is less dangerous than one that hits a populated area.
“The alarming issue is that there are a rising amount of mobile homes in the Southeast,” says Stephen Strader, a geographer at Villanova University in Pennsylvania who studies extreme weather risk. “The odds are stacked against us there.”
Overall, Americans have made significant progress in preventing tornadoes: when population growth is taken into account, the death rate from tornadoes has decreased drastically over the last century, owing in large part to improved weather forecasting and warning systems.
However, how we develop our cities – and how much tornado exposure we provide – will have a significant impact on the amount of death and destruction tornadoes cause in the future.
“Improving the anchoring of mobile houses to the ground could save innumerable lives,” Strader says.
Despite the fact that the evidence on climate change and tornadoes is still inconclusive, meteorologists anticipate that tornado-friendly conditions will remain this month.
“To be honest, I’m concerned about the rest of the year. I don’t believe we’ve made it out of the woods yet “According to Gensini.
Article Author Gerluxe Image: wikimedia