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Tornadoes and Climate Change: Is There a Link?

May 23, 2013 02:02 PM EDT
The funnel of a tornadic thunderstorm almost touches the ground near South Haven, in Kansas May 19, 2013. A massive storm front swept north through the central United States on Sunday, hammering the region with fist-sized hail, blinding rain and tornadoes, including a half-mile wide twister that struck near Oklahoma City. News reports said at least one person had died.
(Photo : Reuters)

After the devastating tornado that tore through the town of Moore, Okla., the question “Was this a result of climate change?” was quick to follow. However, reports from scientists are out and the answer appears to be a negative.

“This tornadic storm, in my view, probably would have happened irrespective of whether there’s climate change or not,” climate change expert J. Marshall Shepherd of the University of Georgia told CNN.

The question people should be asking, according to Shepherd, is whether or not humans are generally increasing the probability of extreme weather as the climate “differs.”

The way Patrick Kinney, the director of the Columbia Climate and Health Program at Columbia University, likes to describe it, climate is like a driver getting behind the wheel: when sober, the driver has a certain risk level, but when drunk, that risk level increases.

“Greenhouse gases are kind of like the alcohol in the system of the climate,” Kinney told CNN.

However, while Shepherd readily admits there is clear information on the link between climate change and the risk of droughts, heat waves and precipitations, ultimately, he explains, that information is just not there for tornadoes, especially considering that a record kept by NOAA going back to 1954 only shows an increase in the number of weak tornadoes recorded – a result that may be due to an increase in better observational tools and individuals reporting them to weather bureaus.

Furthermore, data going back to 1950, according to a study by researchers at the University of Colorado shows a decline in damage due to tornadoes once the figures were adjusted for inflation as well as the increase of development.

True, 2011 was an extreme year for tornadoes, ultimately claiming as many as 550 lives, but it was immediately followed by one of the quietest years on record.

Ultimately, the necessary ingredients for a tornado include warm, moist and unstable air as well as powerful jet stream winds and strong wind shear to give lift. For this reason, climate change could affect the number and intensity of tornadic storms in a number of ways.

First, they could decrease, PopSci reports Grady Dixon, an associate professor geosciences at Mississippi State University, as saying, for the reason that temperature difference is shrinking more quickly as the poles heat up, which in turn results in weaker jet streams.

On the other hand, as geoscience professor at Purdue University Jeff Trapp told the science news outelt, an increase in the number and intensity of thunderstorms as a result of global warming could mean the birth of more tornadoes.

Ultimately, however, if scientists agree on one thing it’s that, in the end, more research is needed in order to fully understand the link between global warming and storms like the one that took place in Oklahoma.

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