Midwestern tornadoes may be symptom of changing climate

(Source: McClatchy Tribune)  A multi-unit building and cars destroyed by the tornado in Washington, Ill., near Peoria is seen on Monday, Nov. 18, 2013.
(Source: McClatchy Tribune) A multi-unit building and cars was nearly destroyed by the tornado in Washington, Ill., near Peoria.

On the heels of the Philippines’ Super Typhoon Haiyan, deadly tornadoes in the Midwest have left Americans feeling the effects of catastrophic weather closer to home. More than 67 tornadoes have been reported across 12 states, following a storm system appearing uncharacteristically late in the season on Sunday. Illinois has seemingly been hit the hardest, with neighborhoods flattened, cars overturned and a running total of six fatalities.

Missouri also felt a large portion of the damage, with the storm knocking out power from 390,000 residents and the state carrying at least one fatality. Several homes have been completely leveled in Illinois alone, with dozens more in various states of damage across the affected areas.

With the devastation mere states away, some Utahns are beginning to take active interest in why there appears to be an increase in disastrous storms around the world.

“I didn’t realize it,” said Weber State University freshman Laura Richards, “but now I’m wondering if more natural disasters are going to be coming.”

According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, the increase in natural disasters may be linked to global warming.

“Climate change may not be responsible for the recent skyrocketing cost of natural disasters, but it is very likely that it will impact future catastrophes,” stated an official document on the Earth Observatory website. “Changes in climate not only affect average temperatures, but also extreme temperatures, increasing the likelihood of weather-related natural disasters.”

Alice Mulder, chair of the Environmental Issues Committee, said she believes there are a lot of factors to consider.

“We can never attribute a particular weather event, or even brief (weather) period . . . to climate change,” she said. “Be that (event) a drought, tornado, hurricane or icy winter . . . climate is a function of conditions, and trends over much longer time periods.”

(Source: McClatchy Tribune) Construction workers stabilize the roof of the education building of St. John's Lutheran Church in New Minden, Ill., on Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. Residents begin to cleanup after Sunday's tornado.
(Source: McClatchy Tribune) Construction workers stabilize the roof of the education building of St. John’s Lutheran Church in New Minden, Ill., on Monday, when residents began to clean up after Sunday’s tornado.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the average number of total disasters in the United States from 1953 to 1983 was about 26.65 disasters per year. In the last 29 years, that average number has gone up to 91.4 disasters per year, an increase of roughly 242 percent. Though the majority of these disasters are of the natural variety, FEMA disaster declarations range from droughts, tornadoes and hurricanes to acts of terrorism and industry hardship. A full list of disasters is available at Fema.gov/disasters.

Dan Bedford, associate WSU professor of geosciences, explained that while some extreme weather events have increased, some have not.

“Even the extreme weather events that have increased may not have increased because of global warming. For tornadoes, there is no evidence that they’re increasing in either frequency or intensity.”

Tyler Page, a dual interior design and professional sales major, said he doesn’t think natural disasters are connected by frequency.

“I don’t feel that, because there’s (already) been an increase in natural disasters, it necessarily means (they’re) going to increase a lot more.”

Applied environmental geoscience major Derrek Davey said the devastation from the storms has a lot to do with global warming. According to Davey, scientists have recently measured the highest percentage of carbon in the atmosphere ever recorded.

“We have measured that we have increased our global temperature (by) 1 degree. This does not seem like much, but it is a huge factor with ice caps melting. More water equals . . . more devastation from storms.”

Bedford explained that while some extreme weather events such as heat waves or extreme rainstorms are most likely due to global warming, there have been increases in other weather phenomena, such as hurricanes or typhoons, that haven’t been proven to be due to the climate change. “Tornadoes fall into that last category. They haven’t increased in either frequency or intensity.”

Mulder said storms and weather-related events are clearly connected to temperature. “So it should not be a big surprise to find that the rapid average global warming we’ve seen since the Industrial Revolution would affect them.”

Bedford agreed with Mulder about not being able to attribute separate storms to global warming, though “global warming does change the base conditions that make some of these events more likely.”