Musings: Tornadoes Give Climate Change Supporters Ammunition

The central portion of the country, including parts of the Southeast, has become the target of significantly violent storms spawning a large numbers of tornadoes. The storms proved particularly deadly with a May 22nd storm devastating Joplin, Missouri and killing a reported 142 people, placing it number eight on the list of the 25 most deadly tornadoes in U.S. history. The tornado outbreak has also unleashed global warming supporters who claim that the number of violent storms confirms their belief that the nation is on a course for continued outbreaks of these deadly storms due to the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  

Exhibit 9.  Recent Tornadoes Make Year Look Bad
Recent Tornadoes Make Year Look Bad
Source:  NOAA

Several reporters turned to William Chamedies, an atmospheric scientist and dean of the Nicolas School of the Environment at Duke University, for his assessment of the climate and the increase in the number of tornadoes.  He was quoted as saying, "It is almost impossible for us to pinpoint these specific events…and say they were caused by climate change." This is the conclusion of virtually every tornado expert interviewed. But Dr. Chamedies went on to make his case about the link of these storms to global warming by saying, "On the other hand we do know that because of climate change those kinds of events will very, very likely become more common, more frequent, more intense. So what we can say is that these kinds of events that we are seeing are consistent with climate change." This view was contained in the findings of a National Research Council Report commissioned by Congress and for which Dr. Chamedies was the vice chairman. 

The day after the outbreak of a significant number of tornadoes on May 24th and May 25th, National Public Radio (NPR) talked with Dr. Harold Brooks (no relation), a meteorologist with the National Severe Storm Laboratory at the University of Oklahoma, about the rash of storms. Dr. Brooks pointed out that the number of storms on those two days merely brought the May storm total close to the historical average for the month. Prior to those two days, this May was one of the slowest storm months on record. That comment is supported by the data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for tornadoes from 2005 through 2011.

Exhibit 10.  2011 Tornado Activity Quiet Until Now
2011 Tornado Activity Quiet Until Now
Source:  NOAA

Dr. Brooks highlighted that the media focuses on the number of deadly storms and then expands their investigation into how this has become a serious problem due to some larger unexplained factor that must be considered. As Dr. Brooks pointed out, the Joplin tornado was not an outlier. It came on a day with a fewer-than-average number of tornadoes. He further pointed out that "if that tornado was five miles north or five miles south, no one outside the meteorological community would have noticed."

NPR pressed its case by questioning the rash of storms this year that have hit urban areas. They wondered whether this was a trend.  Dr. Brooks responded that even though Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Joplin, Missouri have been hit, in 1998 Nashville, Tennessee was hit and the following year Oklahoma City was, too. He did not see any trend in urban areas being hit, except possibly for the growth in urban communities. 

The more interesting phenomenon is that this recent outbreak in tornadoes ranks with the 1950s storm activity. In fact, there are three tornadoes on the top 25 deadliest list with Flint, Michigan ranking tenth (116 deaths), Waco, Texas at number 11 (114 deaths) and Worcester, Massachusetts at number 21 (90 deaths). A storm from 1955 was also on the list. The chart of tornado deaths by year contained in Exhibit 11 shows the impact of 1953 and the recent storm deaths. 

Exhibit 11.  Tornado Deaths By Year
Tornado Deaths By Year

An even more interesting trend is the number of deaths from tornadoes by decades and their relation to the population of the country.  The data shows that the 1950s was the most deadly decade with 8.6 deaths per million of population. That ratio has declined steadily until it hit only 1.9 deaths per million for the decade of the 2000s. Based on the first two years of this decade, we would appear to be on an upward trend that might take us back closer to the 1950s, but there are many more years of weather to be experienced before we know whether that claim might prove correct.

The claim about climate change, which really means the increase in global warming, and the number of tornadoes is further refuted by data about the long-term trends in both the number of storms and rising temperatures. The two charts below show clearly that while average temperatures, measured for the March through August time period of each year, have risen between 1950 and 2010, the number of strong tornadoes (F3 to F5) during the period declined. These

Exhibit 12.  Tornado Deaths By Decade
Tornado Deaths By Decade
Source:  NOAA,, PPHB

charts suggest that there has been no direct relationship between global warming and an increase in tornadoes.

Exhibit 13.  Tornadoes And Temps Inversely Related
Tornadoes And Temps Inversely Related
Source:  Climate Depot

Fear of global warming creating serious weather events that cause death and damage has become a strong weapon for environmentalists. They have moved away from the use of global warming, opting instead for climate change, as it enables them to tie any extreme weather event to their idea of what is disrupting a peaceful environment. This is how we find extreme heat and drought cited as due to climate change just as winter blizzards and super cold temperatures are. While we are not interested in debating the global warming or climate change case, we recognize its proponents will use all extreme weather events to attempt to further their cause. As a result, we expect the start of the hurricane season on June 1st will provide another opportunity for these global warming proponents to claim that an "above average" or "above normal" tropical storm season is the result. 

We have previously reported on the various weather forecasting services that have made forecasts of the number of tropical storms and hurricanes suggesting that this season will be very active, and more importantly, has an increased chance of some of these storms making landfall on the U.S. coastline. While climate scientists have tried to link global warming with the recently increased tropical storm activity, they have not been able to make the case convincingly. Dr. William Gray of the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University has undertaken extensive research that shows that there is no correlation between rising temperatures and carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere and increased tropical storm activity. That, however, will not deter the global warming supporters from trying to make the case each time a new tropical storm or hurricane emerges.

What is interesting is the coincidence of increased tornado activity and more tropical storms and hurricanes. The even more interesting coincidence is that these two weather events also were quite active during the 1950s. A 2005 paper by Gerald Bell and Muthuval Chelliah at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center showed that the period 1950-1969 and 1995-2004 were both marked by above normal Atlantic hurricane activity. Both periods had similar, although slightly different, weather phenomenon that explained their high activity.  The years 1950-1969 exhibited a strong link to the leading topical multidecadal mode, which is a series of climate conditions that foster formation and strengthening of tropical storms in the Atlantic basin. Likewise, 1995-2002 was associated with a sharp increase in amplitude of the second leading tropical multidecadal mode. There was a very strong West African monsoon circulation pattern and near-average sea surface temperatures across the central tropical Atlantic basin during 1950-1969 compared to modestly enhanced West African monsoons and exceptionally warm Atlantic sea surface temperatures during 1995-2004. It is the fact that this set of variables was quite similar during the two time periods, which helps explain the rather heavy storm activity in the 1950s and currently, while these same conditions did not exist during the intervening period when storm activity was dramatically reduced.

Exhibit 14.  Peak Hurricane Activity Was In 1950s
Peak Hurricane Activity Was In 1950s
Source:  NOAA

Prior to 1960, the United States average about 20 hurricane strikes per decade, or two per year. Since 1960 and through 2008, the U.S. averaged 14 hurricanes per decade, or 1.4 storms per year. The number of storms was lower in 2009 but significantly higher in 2010. The result may be a slight increase in the average number of storms. While climate change supporters will focus on last year, statistically the number of storms has declined from earlier periods, even though there were similar climate variables existing during the two bookend periods. If 2011 proves as active as the forecasters are predicting, then the climate change supporters will be trying to reinvigorate their case.

These climate change supporters, however, are succeeding in influencing politicians. The decisions being made by governments in response to the cajoling from climate change "scare scenarios" is demonstrated by Chicago. A recent extended article in The New York Times described how climate scientists have convinced the politicians that the city’s climate by the end of the century will resemble that of Baton Rouge, Louisiana rather than its historical northern weather. As a result, Chicago has banned the planting of white oaks, the state tree of Illinois, in favor of swamp oaks and sweet gum trees from the South. They also are adding vegetation to roofs and are considering air conditioning for all the city’s 750 schools. 

The climate scientists have modeled that Chicago would have summers like those of the South with as many as 72 days with temperatures over 90 degrees. For most of the past century the city has averaged fewer than 15 days. Likewise, by 2070 the city could expect 35% more precipitation in winter and spring, but 20% less in summer and fall. The computer models demonstrate that heat- related deaths could soar to 1,200 a year and that the rapidly changing temperatures could cause significant deterioration in the condition of building facades, bridges and roads. Termites also could become a serious problem, while they are virtually non-existent today. 

As a result of these disastrous predictions, Chicago is undertaking to rebuild its alleys and streets, which account for 25% of ground cover, to allow water to seep into the ground rather than all run off into the drainage system. They are rebuilding bike lanes and parking spaces with permeable pavers allowing 80% of rainwater to filter through to the ground below. They are using a new pavement material that includes recycled tires enabling the concrete to expand in heat and contract in cold without cracking or buckling. The city has undertaken a tree planting effort, spending $10 million a year, to increase the tree cover from 11% in 1991 to a goal of 23% this decade. We were intrigued that it costs about $4,500 per tree. Maybe that’s because they eschew local trees such as white oak, ash and Norway maples and instead import trees native to the South. 

While the famous quote, "Never let a good crisis go to waste," is attributable to the current Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, this remaking of Chicago began under former mayor William Daly. However, we guess the quote reflects the modus operandi of all Chicago politicians, and consultants, too. The scary thing is how much investment is being redirected under this plan to projects that may prove worthless, or at least not efficient if global warming doesn’t continue as the computer models predict. It appears these Chicago politicians are not about to let this crisis go to waste.