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Were Tornadoes Caused By Climate Warming? Warming Likely Makes Storms More Intense
President Biden is visiting the state of Kentucky today, assessing damage from the weekend tornado outbreak that killed more than 80 people across several states. The brunt of the damage was in Kentucky where more than 70 people lost their lives.
As scientists dig into more information about the storms, some researchers are investigating if this storm outbreak has any connection to recent climate warming trends.
Elizabeth Carter is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Syracuse University. Her research specialties include disaster response and mitigation.
Professor Carter says:
“The severe tornado cluster on December 11 was a tragic event that served to highlight both the social and environmental drivers behind observed intensifying human impacts of natural disasters. The environmental conditions that create tornados are complex, and tornados themselves are tricky to directly observe, so we don’t have good historical records of tornados. Without a lot of data from past events to compare it to, we can’t look at this one storm event and say with confidence this was unusual, or this was due to climate change.
“That being said, the simplest interpretation of global warming is that it increases the amount of energy stored in our atmosphere, and so when the conditions are right for storms to form, they’re more likely to be intense because they have more fuel. While we don’t have good enough measurements of tornados themselves to detect trends, we do have good enough measurements of how much energy is available for them if they form to detect trends.
“For example, we have good records of something called convective available potential energy or CAPE. CAPE is a metric of how much fuel is available for convective storms like tornados to use if they form. We know with certainty that CAPE is increasing because of anthropogenic climate change,,, and we can infer that more CAPE means more intense tornados. This implies a strong link between tornado intensity and climate change. The second thing that this storm highlighted is the social element of intensifying impacts of natural disasters; the effectiveness with which our policies and infrastructure seem to incidentally shunt risk associated with natural disasters down socio-economic gradients within our communities.
“Many of the lives lost in this storm were low-wage workers, and the news suggests that some of these losses were preventable. That is very tragic and, in my opinion, commands our immediate focus as a nation.”
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