Year 4, Month 6, Day 3: The Music Goes Round And Round

Lee Sandlin, in USA Today, on the OK Tornadoes:

The truth is that tornadoes like this are rare but not unheard-of. They have been part of the reality of life in the American heartland for centuries. So why do people have the idea that there is something so horribly sinister about this newest one?

Partly, of course, it’s the sheer overwhelming violence and terror of the tornado itself, transmitted in real-time and viewed over and over again by millions of people on news websites and the Internet. This naturally has the effect of dulling the memory of previous catastrophes.

There is also the current tendency of the news media to treat every meteorological event in apocalyptic terms. But now there is also our growing urgency about climate change. In much of the online discussion about what happened in Moore, we can hear the repeated fear that there’s something unnatural going on with the weather, that this one event — and if not this one, then surely the next — will be the tipping point for global disaster.

Among meteorologists there is a widespread consensus that climate change is real, but very little concern about what one specific tornado may or may not prove about it. In the first decade of this century, there were only three EF-5 tornadoes anywhere in North America; nobody knows why. In 2011 alone there were six.

What should concern us is what a tornado like the one in Moore says about the heedless way we occupy the American landscape. The heartland is being enormously overbuilt. Tornadoes are going to be more frequent occurrences in densely inhabited areas because there are going to be fewer empty places for them to touch down.

Whatever happens to the larger climate, events like Moore are increasingly going to be the norm.

Much of this letter was cribbed from information in Greg Laden’s blog. May 22:

Science can’t say definitively that climate change was responsible for a specific tornado, or any other example of extreme weather, but it can confirm that the accelerating greenhouse effect is clearly linked to an overall increase in storminess.

Tornadoes are so variable in distribution and strength that they’re poor indicators — but storms in general result from unevenly distributed heat in tropical areas (like the Gulf of Mexico) which moves Northward via air and water currents. A hotter world means more food for storms; although it’s impossible to say what particular types of storms will increase, we can see a steady rise in storm-caused property damage. Unlike the reality-detached denialists in Congress, insurance companies use real numbers, and stand to lose real money, which is why they’re making plans to address the problem. Isn’t it time America’s lawmakers started taking the threat of climate change with the seriousness it deserves?

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 6, Day 2: Why Are You Worried About You-Know-Who?

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, on climate change’s connection to the OK tornadoes:

So, the actual question is whether climate change is influencing tornado disasters like the one in Oklahoma. Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle jumped right into the fray and finds that a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official in 2011 said there currently is no evidence to link tornado activity to climate change … but don’t completely rule it out:

The fact that the United States swung from a record high in 2010-11 to record low in 2012-13 caught the attention of meteorologist Patrick Marsh of NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center. He calculated that the record 12-month tornado maximum of 1,050 EF-1 and stronger tornadoes from June 2010-May 2011 was a 1-in-62,500 year event, and the record 12-month low of 197 EF-1 and stronger tornadoes that occurred from May 2012-April 2013 was a 1-in-3000 to 1-in-4000 year event. In summary, Marsh wrote: “Anyway you look at it, the recent tornado ‘surplus’ and the current tornado ‘drought’ is extremely rare. The fact that we had both of them in the span of a few years is even more so!” Could this be related to climate change? Perhaps climate change is causing more extremes, both and high low. “The extraordinary contrast underscores the crazy fluctuations we’ve seen in Northern Hemisphere jet stream patterns during the past three years. Call it ‘Weather Whiplash’ of the tornado variety,” says Jeff Masters. Nevertheless, when it comes to tornadoes and a warmer world, science really cannot say at this time.

Always, um, happy to resurrect the Cheney Doctrine. May 21:

So we “can’t completely rule out” the idea that climate change might have a role in the tornadoes that just hammered Oklahoma? Good. After all, what likelihood is there that the accelerating greenhouse effect could cause devastating storms, out-of-season precipitation, and extreme weather events? Lets’ make that probability pretty low. Is two percent too much? Okay, reduce it to just one chance in a hundred that the connection is real. Such a small probability shouldn’t trigger action. Or should it?

“Even if there’s just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty.” The Cheney doctrine was applied to lead us into a pointless and costly war on the flimsiest of pretexts. By contrast, if the evidence for Iraqi WMDs was as substantial as that for the dangers of human-caused climate change, our troops would have found loose nukes in the bazaars of Baghdad.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 3, Day 11: Tighten Up, Willya?

The Malaysia Star runs a Reuters story on the increase in tornadoes as a consequence of You-Know-What:

NEW YORK (Reuters) – When at least 80 tornadoes rampaged across the United States, from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, last Friday, it was more than is typically observed during the entire month of March, tracking firm reported on Monday.

According to some climate scientists, such earlier-than-normal outbreaks of tornadoes, which typically peak in the spring, will become the norm as the planet warms.

“As spring moves up a week or two, tornado season will start in February instead of waiting for April,” said climatologist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Whether climate change will also affect the frequency or severity of tornadoes, however, remains very much an open question, and one that has received surprisingly little study.

“There are only a handful of papers, even to this day,” said atmospheric scientist Robert Trapp of Purdue University, who led a pioneering 2007 study of tornadoes and climate change.

I used this as the hook for some large-scale moralizing. Cheers. Sent March 5:

In the unfolding disaster of global warming, our species faces a crisis so broad in scope and diverse in symptoms that it is almost impossible to imagine. Until now, of course. The sudden uptick in extreme storms and climatic disturbances is giving us a preview of the coming centuries, and it isn’t pretty. The temperatures are still rising, and only a fool could now suggest that the weather is going back the way it was when we were young.

Modern humans are indeed uniquely situated in history; our global response to the crisis will shape the fate of our descendants. They will judge us harshly if we continue to put CO2 in the air, our behavior a mix of carelessness and callousness. If we put aside petty politics and addressed the unfolding climate crisis with responsibility and integrity, our children’s children’s children will justly remember us with respect and reverence.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 6, Day 10: Waking Up A Bit.

The Booneville Daily News has a pretty good editorial on the complications attendant on attempts to directly link awful weather with climate change:

You won’t receive a text message alerting you to start worrying about climate change. There will be no ransom note left at your door, warning of the natural disasters that will strike if you fail to comply.
It is the uncertain and ambiguous nature of how rising global average temperatures impact people around the planet that makes arguing for the need to take action on climate change a tough sell and scarier for it.

I’m heartened by voices from the heartlands rejecting denialist propaganda. Sent May 28:

While simplistic attempts to link tornadoes and climate change are easily debunked, so are the equally simplistic attempts to deny correlations between them. Both climate and weather are complex systems, making any attempt to state unambiguous relationships between these global and local phenomena profoundly flawed. But the difficulty of establishing direct causal links between the greenhouse effect and any specific weather event is not a rationale for inaction. The scientific consensus on climate change is overwhelming; the only “expert” voices denying either its dangers or its human causes turn out on examination to be those in the pay of corporations sociopathically reluctant to sacrifice future profits. The danger to us and future generations is very clear. Even if a particular catastrophe cannot be directly tied to your SUV’s CO2 emissions, we know that continuing with “business as usual” will load the climatic dice, making tragedies like Joplin’s ever likelier.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 6, Day 8: Auntie Em?

The Charlotte Observer has an editorial connecting some of the dots between the Joplin tornadoes and climate change. But it’s a tricky thing:

No one storm, drought or flood can be proof of global climate change, of course. Weather varies; it takes decades for scientists to document trends. Yet climate scientists for years have warned that climate change will bring more extreme storms, more rain and more drought. Regardless, the very existence of climate change remains politically controversial. This spring the Republican-dominated U.S. House, voting 240-184, rejected a resolution saying “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.” Never mind that among the groups accepting that proposition are the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Meteorological Organization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA.

I was very grateful for Greg Laden’s explanation, which gave me the robbery analogy I used in my letter, and which I strongly recommend.

My letter, sent May 27; I am very pleased with my last sentence:

While it’s easy and facile to attempt a direct linkage between devastating tornadoes and global climate change, asking if those destructive storms were “caused” by global warming isn’t going to provide a meaningful answer — because there are many different ways to understand causality. The greenhouse effect impacts climate, a planetary system, while storms, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and unseasonal precipitation are local and regional. By analogy: just because crimes of robbery increase during economic downturns doesn’t mean your brother-in-law got mugged because times are hard, and just because teen drinking is generally correlated with automobile accidents doesn’t mean that your neighbor’s specific fender-bender was caused by a six-pack in the wrong hands. And just because we can’t claim direct causal relationships between tornadoes and climate change doesn’t relieve us of our responsibilities to our descendants, who will live in a world where such destructive weather is horribly routine. Ignorance of the laws of probability is no excuse.

Warren Senders