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The Folly Of Linking Tornado Outbreaks To Climate Change

In times of tragedy, there always seems to be hucksters about trying to use that tragedy to sell a position, a product, or a belief. In ancient times, tragedy was the impetus used to appease the gods and to embrace religion to save yourselves. In light of this article on the Daily Caller Center for American Progress blames Republicans for devastating tornadoes it seems some opportunists just can’t break the pattern of huckster behavior in the face of disaster.

I can’t think of a more disgusting example of political opportunism that has occurred such as we witnessed today from The Center for American Progress via their Think Progress blog, as well as the New York Times op-ed piece that suggests predicting severe weather is little more than a guessing game. Certified Consulting Meteorologist Mike Smith of Wichita, KS based WeatherData Inc. said of the NYT piece:

The cruelty of this particular April, in the number of tornadoes recorded, is without equal in the United States.

This may or may not be true. The statement is at least premature. The NWS Storm Prediction Center March 8th changed its methodology which allows more reports of tornadoes and other severe storms to be logged (see first note here). We don’t know yet whether this is a record April.

Tornadoes in particular, researchers say, straddle the line between the known and the profoundly unknowable.

“There’s a large crapshoot aspect,” said Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

To add to the mix, Peter Gleick says at the Huffington Post “More extreme and violent climate is a direct consequence of human-caused climate change (whether or not we can determine if these particular tornado outbreaks were caused or worsened by climate change).”

In the Think Progress piece, again, Dr. Trenberth is quoted:

“Given that global warming is unequivocal,” climate scientist Kevin Trenberth cautioned the American Meteorological Society in January of this year, “the null hypothesis should be that all weather events are affected by global warming rather than the inane statements along the lines of ‘of course we cannot attribute any particular weather event to global warming.’”

It should also be noted that during that AMS conference in January, Dr. Trenberth called people who disagreed with that view “deniers” in front of hundreds of scientists, even after being called out on the issue he left the hateful term intact in his speech. Clearly, he is a man with a bias. From my perspective, these articles citing Trenberth are opportunistic political hucksterism at its finest. Unfortunately, many from these bastions of left leaning opininators don’t bother to cite some inconvenient facts, leaving their claims to be on par with superstitions that were the part of our dark past.

First, let’s look at the claim of tornadoes being on the increase, in parallel with the climate change that is claimed. In my previous essay Severe weather more common? Data shows otherwise I cited this graph from the National Climatic Data Center:

Obviously, when NCDC tallies the number of F3-F5 tornadoes from this recent outbreak, and gets around to updating that graph, there will be an uptick at the end in 2011 that is on par or even higher than the famous 1974 tornado outbreak. The point though is that despite the 1974 uptick, the trend was down.

The NYT article says:

The population of the South grew by 14.3 percent over the last decade, according to the Census Bureau, compared with 9.7 percent for the nation as a whole. Of those states hardest hit by tornadoes this year, some were among the fastest growing, notably Texas and North Carolina.

Let’s look at trends of tornado related deaths with population. From Harold Brooks. a research meteorologist with the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma. we have this graph:

Source: NOAA’s US Severe Weather Blog, SPC, Norman Oklahoma

Let’s look at other figures. Today, Dr. Roger Pielke Junior got an updated graph from Harold Brooks at NOAA to bring it to 2010:

That graph is a testament to the improved lead times, accuracy, and and dissemination of severe weather warnings by the National Weather Service, whose members did an outstanding job during this severe weather event. CCM Mike Smith, in his book Warnings The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather talks about the vast improvements we’ve witnessed since the early days of severe weather forecasting. He writes today of the recent outbreak:

There is no question that the current storm warning program, a collaborative effort of the National Weather Service, private sector weather companies like AccuWeather, broadcast meteorologists, and local emergency managers have saved hundreds of lives during these recent storms through excellent forecasts and warnings.  This image shows the tornado warning (red hatched area) for Birmingham that was issued more than 20 minutes before the tornado arrived.

Can the warning program be improved? Certainly. The National Weather Service’s new dual-polarization radar will improve flash flood warnings and will incrementally improve warnings of tornadoes that occur after dark.

But in the immediate aftermath of these tragic storms we seem to have learned two things:  People need to respond to today’s highly accurate warnings. For some reason, the media (see examples here and here seems determined to downplay the quality of the warnings which may have the effect of driving down response rates.

Second, they must have a place to take shelter. Most mobile home parks and many homes in the South do not have underground shelters or safe rooms. Mobile home parks and housing developments should look to constructing these in the future.

With 30 minutes of advance warning in this case, and many other advance warnings during this outbreak, plus the supersaturation of live television coverage, plus the fact that weeks in advance, my colleague Joe D’Aleo, co-founder of the Weather Channel and now at Weatherbell LLC,  discussed the likelihood of a super-outbreak of severe weather occurring due to the juxtaposition of cold air from snowpack in the northern plains with warm moist air in the south, it would seem Dr. Trenberth’s claim of “a large crapshoot aspect” doesn’t hold up. The death toll issue seems to be shelter, not lack of forecasts, warnings, or awareness. People knew the storms were coming, they just had few options for shelters that would survive at F3-F5 category tornado intensity.

The attempts at linking the tornado outbreak this week to “global warming” have been roundly criticized in the meteorological community. Just yesterday there was a denouncement of the tornadoes to global warming link in this story from Physorg.com

“If you look at the past 60 years of data, the number of tornadoes is increasing significantly, but it’s agreed upon by the tornado community that it’s not a real increase,” said Grady Dixon, assistant professor of meteorology and climatology at Mississippi State University.

“It’s having to do with better (weather tracking) technology, more population, the fact that the population is better educated and more aware. So we’re seeing them more often,” Dixon said.

But he said it would be “a terrible mistake” to relate the up-tick to climate change.

Anticipating this sort of nonsense in the current political climate that seeks to blame humans for the weather, last month, the National Weather Association, representing thousands of operational meteorologists, forecasters, and television-radio meteorologists in the United States adopted their first ever position statement on climate change and severe weather events. They state:

Any given weather event, or series of events, should not be construed as evidence of climate change.

The NWA emphasizes that no single weather event or series of events should be construed as evidence of a climate trend. Daily weather is subject to extreme events due to its natural variability. It is only the occurrence of these events over decades that determines a climate trend.

No clearer statement could be rendered. It mirrors what a NOAA scientist at the Storm Prediction Center said yesterday to Fox News:

Greg Carbin, the warning coordination meteorologist at NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, said warming trends do create more of the fuel that tornadoes require, such as moisture, but that they also deprive tornadoes of another essential ingredient: wind shear.

“We know we have a warming going on,” Carbin told Fox News in an interview Thursday, but added: “There really is no scientific consensus or connection [between global warming and tornadic activity]….Jumping from a large-scale event like global warming to relatively small-scale events like tornadoes is a huge leap across a variety of scales.”

Asked if climate change should be “acquitted” in a jury trial where it stood charged with responsibility for tornadoes, Carbin replied: “I would say that is the right verdict, yes.” Because there is no direct connection as yet established between the two? “That’s correct,” Carbin replied.

Historically, there have been many tornado outbreaks that occurred well before climate change was on anyone’s radar.

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