Place Blame for Recent Tornadoes Where It Belongs
By Larry Bell
Tragically, there is nothing unique about the number or severity of more than 55 devastating tornadoes that tore through the outskirts of Kansas City, swept through Indiana and Ohio, and stretched eastward from Idaho and Colorado across eight states late last month.
Nor, unfortunately, is there anything unique regarding all-too-alluring temptations for some politicos to blame such events on “climate change,” a term that has come to replace “global warming” in name only.
Flashback to Al Gore lamenting during a June 2013 Rhode Island energy and environment conference following a destructive Moore, Oklahoma twister that scientists “won’t let us yet” link tornadoes to climate change. Gore claimed that shoddy historical statistics resulted in failures to connect “these record-breaking tornadoes and the climate crisis.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., wasted no time attributing this latest raft of tornadoes to climate change after a hazard warning was issued for Washington, D.C. The New York Democrat immediately released an Instagram video. “The climate crisis is real y’all,” she said. “Guess we’re at casual tornadoes in growing regions of the country?”
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez added, “Other regions deal with wildfires, tornadoes, droughts, etc. But ALL of these threats will be increasing in intensity as climate crisis grows and we fail to act appropriately.”
Democratic 2020 presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., blamed climate change for two tornadoes that hit eastern Alabama. Sanders posted a May 28 statement on his Senate Facebook account. Sanders wrote:
“This is insane: As Oklahoma and Arkansas face catastrophic flooding, and Ohio and Indiana reel from tornados, Trump is trying to undermine the very science that proves climate change is real. We need policy based on facts, not rightwing ideology.”
So okay. Let’s review some real scientific facts.
For starters, the 2019 tornado season wasn’t a result of unusually warm spring temperatures, but rather, just the opposite conditions.
As explained by meteorologist Dr. Roy Spencer at the University of Alabama, tornado conditions exist only when cool and warm air masses collide. Writing in Fox News, he notes that the perfect conditions for this existed this year after winter has refused to lose its grip on the western United States.
May temperatures across the nation were close to 2 degrees Fahrenheit below normal. In addition, atypical snow conditions extended from Northern Michigan through Colorado to the Sierra of California into late May. Together, these circumstances produced a persistently lingering cold air mass.
Tornadoes occur when severe thunderstorms known as supercells create spiraling updrafts causing strong wind shear at the boundaries between colliding warm and cold air masses. The warm air rotates upwards at increasing speeds until it punches through the colder air layer.
However, thunderstorms rarely produce tornadoes, and lacking cold air protagonists, they are virtually unknown altogether in hot and humid tropical regions.
Every year, springtime thunderstorms in Central and Southeast U.S. have plenty of warm, moist air to draw on from the Gulf of Mexico. This year, a large field of cold air hung around longer than usual.
Roy Spencer notes that a very slow U.S. warming trend in recent decades has been accompanied by fewer of these cold springtime air masses over the West. According to National Weather Service statistics, the long-term trend of strong (EF3) to violent (EF5) tornadoes has been decidedly downward, with 2018 experiencing record low activity.
This year’s spike in tornadoes is made far more dramatic in comparison with 2018 which was the first year recorded without a single violent tornado since record-keeping first began during the late 1800s.
Last year also experienced near-lows in terms of overall tornado damage.
The only better ones were 2017, 2016, and 2015.
Although NOAA reported a slow decline in tornado frequencies between 1954 and 2012, the actual annual numbers — those of weaker ones in particular — are uncertain prior to the advent of radar-detection technology.
Nevertheless, Patrick Marsh, a Storm Prediction Center meteorologist, reported that outbreaks of 50 or more tornadoes really aren’t uncommon, having happened 63 times in U.S. history. There are even three instances of more than 100 twisters in single years.
Roy Spencer reminds us once again not to conflate three decade or- longer climate cycles with seasonal weather which naturally varies from year to year. He writes, “The alarmist claims of AOC, Gore, and Sanders are not just speculative; they are opposed by our observations and by meteorological theory.”
As for that all too ever popular Trump-blaming mantra, perhaps he instead deserves some credit for making America’s very recent climate great again. According to the U.S. Natural Hazard statistics, last year also witnessed a below 30-year average in deaths caused not only by tornadoes, but also from hurricanes, flooding and summer overheating.
On the other hand, don’t count on the president getting cut any cool-headed climate slack either way. Staunch critics will probably still complain that the U.S. experienced a rise in deaths due to extra cold and long winter weather.
Larry Bell is an endowed professor of space architecture at the University of Houston where he founded the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA) and the graduate program in space architecture.