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What does climate change have to do with deadly tornadoes in America?

A man looks at the remains of his Mayfield, Kentucky home in the wake of a tornado that caused widespread destruction.

Photo: AFP Agency

The President of the United States, Joe BidenOn Monday, he asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate if there is a link between climate change and the tornadoes that hit the central west of the country last weekend. What does global warming have to do with this tragedy? The Spectator explains.

Before we begin, a brief summary of what happened over the weekend:

  • More than 30 tornadoes inflicted severe damage in six states in the Midwest this past weekend. To assess the situation, it must be borne in mind that something like this did not happen almost a century ago. In 1925, 12 tornadoes hit the same area.
  • The affected states are: Illinois, Kentucky, Misuri, Tennessee, Arkansas y Misisipi. The area, it should be noted, is prone to this type of event and was in fact dubbed “the tornado corridor.” However, it is striking that the disaster occurred in December, a time of year when the weather is less suitable for tornadoes to develop.
  • There are villages that were completely destroyed. The death toll is 74, although this could increase as many people are still missing.

The tragedy, described by Biden as “unimaginable” and “one of the largest storm outbreaks in history,” has sparked a national debate about the incidence of climate change on the frequency with which these types of phenomena occur.

Deanne Criswell, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), pointed out that “the severity and the length of time these tornadoes were on the ground is unprecedented” and is due to the conditions of climate change.

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Was it climate change that caused the weekend’s catastrophic tornadoes?

Although the conditions for their formation may be fostered by warming, scientists are very cautious about a possible direct link. This year a connection was made between climate change and a heat wave in the northwestern United States, or even flooding in Germany and Belgium. However, the specific phenomenon of tornadoes is one of the most difficult to study.

In recent decades, we have seen a trend of more favorable conditions for tornado formation in the midwest and southeastern United States, as Central Michigan climatologist John Allen explained to AFP. And that signal gets stronger in winter. However, Allen clarifies that “it is misleading to attribute this event to climate change.”

James Elsner, a professor of climatology at Florida State University, makes an interesting comparison: Although fog tends to increase the number of car accidents, the cause of a specific accident in foggy weather may be something else.

To determine this cause, research is needed: The science of “attributing” extreme events to climate change is really on the rise, but such a study will take time if it is ever done.

Meanwhile, can we at least say that climate change, by creating these favorable conditions, will increase the number of tornadoes in the future?

“The evidence seems to point in that direction. However, I don’t think we can say definitively yet, ”Allen acknowledges.

The most recent report by UN climate experts (IPCC), dated August, highlighted “a low degree of confidence” regarding a link between climate change and localized phenomena such as tornadoes. And this applies to both “observed trends” and “projections”.

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How a tornado form?

This is a phenomenon that occurs during electrical storms. A mass of hot, humid air rises from the ground accompanied by strong winds. Then that hot air collides with the cold and dry from the storm and forms a vortex. When the vortex makes contact with the ground, the rotating motion generates a rising column of air that accelerates and creates a destructive force in its path.

What changes have been observed with tornadoes now?

For this you have to check the numbers. The average annual number of tornadoes in the United States, most of which occur in the spring, has not increased in recent years – the number remains around 1,300.

“Most of the months are even,” says Jeff Trapp, chair of the atmospheric sciences department at the University of Illinois. However, there’s an exception.

The months of December and January have seen an increase in tornadoes in the last 30 to 40 years, particularly in the southern United States. This is consistent with the explanation of those who claim that global warming has an impact.

The two ingredients necessary for tornado formation are warm, humid air near the ground, and winds that blow in opposite directions at different altitudes. And these have increased due to global warming.

“Today we see a greater probability of hot days during the cold period, which can favor the formation of storms and tornadoes,” estimates Jeff Trapp.

On the other hand, tornadoes seem to concentrate in fewer days. When they form, they “tend to contain more” at the same time, explains Chiara Lepore, a researcher at Columbia University. And “this has consequences in terms of damage,” he stresses.

Now what can we expect?

The problem for researchers in studying tornadoes is that they are too transient and small to show up in commonly used climate models. Therefore, scientists are limited to studying only the evolution of the conditions potentially favorable for their formation.

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A study published in early November estimated that for each degree Celsius of additional warming, the probability of favorable conditions for a severe storm (with hailstorms, hurricanes, etc.) increased between 14% and 25% in the United States.

However, that does not mean that hurricanes will strike every time these conditions are right, it is even highly unlikely.

“This is kind of a ceiling on what we can achieve with each degree of global warming,” said Chiara Lepore, lead author of the study.

According to another forthcoming study, “tornadoes could be more powerful in future climates,” according to Jeff Trapp. To reach this conclusion, the researchers took an already observed event and analyzed how future weather conditions would affect it. However, very violent tornadoes will remain “unusual events,” predicts the expert.

* With information from AFP

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Source: Elespectador

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