Tornadoes, Climate Change and the Disaster Gap

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Larry W. Smith/EPA

There are storms and then there is what happened to the town of Sanford, North Carolina on the night of April 16. A boisterous storm system had begun in Oklahoma on April 14, bringing flash floods, tornadoes and thunderstorms from the Midwest through the Southeast, part of a massive weather system that could be felt as far as the New York City area over the weekend. But North Carolina took the brunt—on April 16, the state experienced a record 92 tornadoes, killing at least 22 people and injuring at least 80 others. Sanford, a town of 29,000 in the center of the state, was one of the hardest-hit areas, with one tornado completely destroying a Lowe’s big-box store. The outlet’s manager moved quickly to corral an estimated 70 customers and staff in the building’s windowless storeroom, just before the tornado hit. “We’re beginning to recover from what we believe is the most widespread tornadoes we’ve seen since the mid-80s,” North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue told reporters after the storms had passed.

So now the question I’m all but contractually obligated to ask after a major weather disaster: did climate change play a role in this violent outbreak of tornadoes? The answer is maybe—but that’s not the right question to ask. Tornadoes—even more than other severe weather events like hurricanes or floods—are inherent unstable and difficult for forecasters to predict. That’s part of what makes cyclones so dangerous and so frightening—while meterologists can identify the conditions that lead to tornadoes, there’s still no way to pinpoint exactly when and where one will touch down. And that uncertainty also makes it harder to gauge what impact warming temperatures might have on tornado frequency and intensity. After all, while there’s fairly robust science on the connection between climate change and hurricanes—the short version seems to suggest that warming might make storms stronger, if not necessarily more common—there’s still plenty of room for vigorous disagreement on that score.

By contrast, there hasn’t been anywhere near as much research done on the possible connections between climate change and tornadoes. A 2009 study by University of Georgia researchers suggested that drier autumns and winters that might be seen due to warming could actually lead to fewer tornadoes developing during the spring season, at least in the Southeast, though the scientists cautioned that their data was preliminary. A research project by Michael Pateman and Drew Vankat found that the frequency of tornadoes had increased between 1950 and 1999—though better detection likely played a significant role in those statistics. But if there’s strong evidence that climate change and tornadoes are connected, researchers have yet to uncover it—and given how difficult and time-consuming it is to attribute a weather event to warming, don’t expect a firm conclusion soon.

In any case, focusing on global warming misses the more important point. Tornadoes, hurricanes and floods will happen, and perhaps climate change will make them worse. But we know without a doubt that weather events can create great damage and loss of life if they strike heavily populated, unprepared areas—and that disaster resilience can significantly cut those risks. It’s about being on the right side of the disaster gap, being a country like Chile, which is well prepared for a major quake, rather than Haiti, which clearly wasn’t. It’s bit like the old joke about how trailer parks must cause tornadoes because they’re struck by the cyclones so often. That’s obviously not true, but a mobile home—which has no basement, no obvious place to shelter from a storm—is much more vulnerable to a tornado than a secure house or apartment building. Indeed, three children from the same family were tragically killed when a tornado hit the Stoney Brook Trailer Park in Raleigh, North Carolina, in one of the worst strikes of the weekend.

The fastest way to reduce deaths and damage from extreme weather events—whether they’re tsunamis, tornadoes or asteroid strikes—is to invest in detection, preparation and response. (To that end, the news that Republicans in the House are aiming to completely defund the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate service is astoundingly short-sighted—even for them.) Economic growth, of course, can help people move into dwellings that are less vulnerable to natural disasters, and education can help prepare a population for an extreme event. (The fact that the Japanese know exactly how to respond to tsunamis certainly helped reduce the death toll from last month’s horrific quake.) In the short-term, we need to more people like Michael Hollowell, the Lowe’s manager whose quick thinking saved scores of people from a tornado strike:


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