Tornadoes And Climate Change: Is There A Link?

BY ON June 13, 2013

Photo of a tornado

I was born and raised in Oklahoma. Generally, Oklahoma is a quiet state, although sometimes we’re in the news because an elected official says something ridiculous. My state has always had tornadoes, but this past month pushed Oklahoma into the media spotlight, with a sharp increase in rare and severe weather events.

On May 3rd, 1999, a EF-5 tornado struck the Moore, Oklahoma area, killing 36 people. I was 11 years old. While I lived, and still live about 75 miles from Moore, it was a defining moment me. I remember what I was doing, the fact that my dad was out on the tractor, and little details like that. I don’t think any of us thought we would ever see something like that again.

Sadly on May 20th another EF-5 tornado struck Moore. We had been warned for a week that we would have severe weather on and around May 20th. Just the day before two people were killed in a tornado in Shawnee and the risk remained high. I started watching the radar early that day. Our risk was thought to be in the evening, so my husband and I decided to run last-minute errands before things got bad.

We listened on the car radio as they issued a tornado emergency warning headed to Moore. This meant a large violent tornado was aimed at a populated area and fatalities were likely. They knew schools were in the tornado’s path. We knew several teachers at Moore schools.

The tornado hit while kids were still at school. We wondered how anyone could have lived through the storm if they weren’t underground. The news was horrifying. It took us hours to find out if friends and family were safe. They all, thankfully, were.

After the May 20th tornado, tragedy struck again. On the night of May 31st, small tornadoes did some minor damage — something we are all very used to in Oklahoma. We would later find out the widest tornado on record was heading to El Reno, and then Oklahoma City! The city was put under a tornado emergency. People started fleeing (something that will now have to be discussed, as it made the situation even more dangerous).

My Facebook feed was full of people saying “not again” in total disbelief that we were watching another tragedy unfold. As the tornado headed straight for the city, small tornados hit and Moore received more damage. After the storms passed, the city suffered historic flooding and Oklahoma lost 22 lives, including three storm spotters.

EF-5 tornadoes are quite rare, and with two hitting Oklahoma in one month, many are asking why. Could climate change be to blame for these deadly tornadoes?

This is not an easy question to answer…

Scientific American asked climate scientist, Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., if climate change could cause more tornadoes:

The main climate change connection is via the basic instability of the low-level air that creates the convection and thunderstorms in the first place. Warmer and moister conditions are the key for unstable air. The oceans are warmer because of climate change.

The climate change effect is probably only a 5 to 10 percent effect in terms of the instability and subsequent rainfall, but it translates into up to a 33 percent effect in terms of damage. (It is highly nonlinear, for 10 percent it is 1.1 to the power of three = 1.33.) So there is a chain of events, and climate change mainly affects the first link: the basic buoyancy of the air is increased. Whether that translates into a supercell storm and one with a tornado is largely chance weather.”

Dr. Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground, added this:

It’s tough to tell if tornadoes may have changed due to a changing climate, since the tornado database is of poor quality for climate research. We cannot measure the wind speeds of a tornado directly, except in very rare cases when researchers happen to be present with sophisticated research equipment.”

There just isn’t enough data to determine if these deadly tornadoes are being fueled by climate change. But, as an Oklahoman, I know that if there is a chance our rapidly changing climate around the globe is causing more and more severe and dangerous weather, it’s a enough reason for me to demand that our elected officials do everything in their power to slow the threat of climate change.


TOPICS: Climate Change, Oklahoma