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

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