This article was written in November for Global Warming is Real. As 2013 winds down, it is appropriate that we consider extreme weather events as a focal point of reflection. These events can help us to marshal the resolve we need to take a science based look at the facts and consider the ways that we can act for a better future.
The recent spate of deadly tornadoes in the U.S. and the carnage of Typhoon
Haiyan in the Philippines are poignant opportunities for us to reflect on the
future of civilization. These events are tangible reminders of the sometimes
intangible reality of human existence in the anthropocene. Extreme weather
affords an opportunity to come to terms with the evidence that shows how human
activities are degrading the Earth’s ecosystems.
While it is difficult to attribute any individual extreme weather event to
global warming, when looked at over time, we see a convincing pattern.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), from 1953 to
1983, the U.S. Averaged 26.65 disasters per year. In the last 29 years, the
average number of U.S. disasters has risen to 91.4 per year, representing an
increase of more than 240 percent.
According to NASA’s Earth Observatory, whether or not global warming is
responsible for this increase in natural disasters, it does speak to our future. As stated
in the Earth Observatory website, climate change will impact future
catastrophes, “changes in climate not only affect average temperatures, but
also extreme temperatures, increasing the likelihood of weather-related natural
The intense thunderstorms that swept across the U.S. Midwest on Sunday are
yet another warning calling us to deal with climate change. This storm follows
on the heals of the devastating Typhoon that recently wreaked havoc in the
On Sunday, November 17th, a large number of violent thunderstorms and as many
as 77 tornadoes touched down
in 12 U.S. states. These events killed at least 8 people, wounded many
others and left a trail of destruction. Entire towns have been decimated and
scores of homes have been wiped off the face of the earth. As terrible as this
is, it is nothing compared to Typhoon Haiyan which has killed between four and
ten thousand and rendered four million people homeless.
Scientists like Professor Will Steffen, a researcher at the ANU and member of
the Climate Council, have linked Typhoon Haiyan to climate
change, others describe it as being exacerbated by global warming. The
relationship between tornadoes and climate change is more complex and harder to
predict than hurricanes (typhoons, cyclones).
Understanding convective available
potential energy, (CAPE) may offer us insights into the relationship between
tornadoes and climate change as this measure represents the energy that powers
storms. It is determined by the combination of moisture and temperature
differences between the ground and higher regions of the atmosphere. It is known
that global warming leads to an increase in CAPE and this in turn leads to an
increase in thunderstorms which can spawn tornadoes.
The relationship between global warming and tornadoes was discussed in a 2007
American interview with climate scientist Kevin Trenberth of the National
Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. While he predicted more
hurricanes due to global warming he also suggested there may be an impact on
“Of course, tornadoes are very much a weather phenomenon. They come from
certain thunderstorms, usually supercell thunderstorms that are in a wind shear
environment that promotes rotation,” Trenberth said. “The main climate change
connection is via the basic instability of the low-level air that creates the
convection and thunderstorms in the first place. Warmer and moister conditions
are the key for unstable air. The oceans are warmer because of climate
Grady Dixon, an associate professor of geosciences at Mississippi State
University who studies tornado climatology also weighed in on the connection between
tornadoes and global warming. ”The most common finding is a warming
environment leads to more storms and more intense storms.” Paradoxically, Dixon
also pointed out that a warming climate means warmer temperatures in the north
which should decrease wind shear and may lead to fewer tornadoes.
Harold Brooks of the National Weather Center recently talked about
a condensing effect, meaning more tornadoes could
occur on fewer days of the year. Jeff Trapp, a professor of atmospheric
science at Purdue University said the tornado season may be expanded by a
warming world. ”We would see an increase in the number of days that could be
favorable for severe thunderstorm and tornado formation,” he said.
Trapp also said that the “CAPE increases with time in a globally warmed
world, mainly because the temperature near the ground and lower parts of the
atmosphere increases and becomes more humid…In a globally warmed future world,
that thunderstorm should be more intense.”
Applied environmental geoscience major Derrek Davey said the devastation from
the storms has a lot to do with global warming.
“We have measured that we have increased our global temperature 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.”
We know that 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.”
said Alice Mulder, chair of the Environmental Issues Committee. “[G]lobal
warming does change the base conditions that make some of these events more
It is important to note that the exact relationship between climate change
and tornadoes is still not very well understood. Scientists do not know how
global warming will impact the frequency or intensity of tornadoes. However, the
absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.
In 2011, the U.S. suffered through 1,700 tornadoes which is the
second-deadliest tornado season in history. But 2012 and 2013 did not see
elevated numbers of tornadoes. However, just as looking at one extreme weather
event does not prove or disprove climate change, looking at tornado data over
the course of a few years does not necessarily contradict the notion that there
is a trend.
Over the course of a few years we can expect to see some variability, science
looks at weather trends over much larger time frames. While the nature of
science will always entertain a degree of uncertainty, more than 95 percent of
climate scientists are in agreement about anthropogenic global warming. They
also acknowledge that this will have serious implications for the health of the
It remains to be seen whether seas will rise by 3 feet or by 10 feet, we also
are not certain if the average global temperature will climb by 4 degrees or by
7. What we do know is that it is getting warmer and seas are rising. We know
that warming is related to extreme weather.
We should leave investigation of the details to climate scientists and the
public should be focusing on what we do know and its implications for the
planet. The relationship between global warming and extreme weather should not
be derailed by the few remaining — albeit powerful – skeptics who try to
undermine the veracity of the vast body of climate science by pointing to
examples of uncertainty.
These impacts of climate change are catastrophic. This is not some
theoretical notion for the distant future, this is a fact here and now. People
are already dying due to disease, food shortages, heat waves and air quality. As
reported in the Daily Beast, a 2012 Climate Vulnerability Monitor
report indicates that global warming is already killing
four-hundred thousand people each year.
Anthropogenic climate change adversely impacts the health of humans and many
other species of animal and plant life. This is a fact borne out in numerous
studies and reports including those published by the United Nations, World
Health Organization (WHO) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In March, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, the commander of the United States
Pacific Command, told security and foreign policy specialists in Cambridge,
Mass., that global climate change is the
greatest threat the United States faces — more dangerous than terrorism,
Chinese hackers and North Korean nuclear missiles.
Extreme weather events help people to see what climate change looks like.
People in the U.S., even those that belong to the Republic party,
traditionally a bastion of climate denial, are coming to terms with the veracity
of global warming. As reported in the Guardian, a new study from Stanford
University’s social psychologist Jon Krosnick found that “a vast majority of red-state
Americans believe climate change is real and at least two-thirds of those
want the government to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Whether or not Typhoon Haiyan or the tornadoes in the U.S. are directly
caused by climate change is not the point. The issue that is highlighted by
these phenomenon encourages us to embrace the scientific evidence. We know that
extreme weather events are expected to intensify as global warming proceeds.
Violent climatic occurrences are consistent with climate models which predict
increasingly severe extreme weather events as the earth warms. While we may not
be able to be certain about the attribution of specific weather events, we know
the earth is warming, we know that the oceans are rising as well. We also know
that a warmer world increases the likelihood of precipitation, storm surges,
flooding and extreme weather.
As the Prince of Wales said
recently, ‘The devastating impact of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines should
surely have been a poignant and telling reminder of the intimacy and
interdependence of man’s relationship with the natural world.”
Despite critics who claim Charles overstated the case, we have good reason to
question the ways in which we relate to the planet. Even if we are foolish
enough to ignore climate models that predict more extreme weather, we will still
be subject to sea level rise and ocean acidification among other adverse
Extreme weather demands that we face the civilization-altering impacts we are
having on the planet. The challenge of the Anthropocene forces us to reflect on
what it means to be human. This is the great existential question of our
To quote the immortal words of Shakespear’s Hamlet:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,”
We are destroying the Earth upon which all life depends, and we must
reconcile ourselves to the implications of our actions. As Roy Scranton
commented in the Times, “If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we
must first learn how to die.”
Regardless of the causal attribution for Typhoon Haiyan and the recent U.S.
Tornadoes, it is no exaggeration to say that climate change poses a threat to
life on earth. Extreme weather events offer a glimpse into the future and this
provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the choice between accepting our
impending death or collectively resolving to change our ways.
Source: Global Warming is Real
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