Mister Twister’s ‘Roid Rage

I’m back from Hawaii and while there, measurements of CO2 from the Mauna Loa observatory (on the Big Island of Hawaii) surpassed 400 parts per million.  When we first started measuring CO2 levels back in 1958, concentrations averaged 318 ppm. There is so much to say about the problems we are creating for ourselves as we let this number shoot higher and higher.

Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory where 400ppm was documented.

Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory where 400ppm was documented.

Yet today I’d rather write about tornadoes given the massive one that just ripped through Moore, OK!  Weather Underground reports the EF-5 tornado was the third costliest  (estimates now say $2 billion) in US history, but only after the two that occurred in 2011.

So our three biggest tornadoes have been in the last two years??

It’s easy to jump to conclusions about the cause, but it’s important that we stick to what science is telling us. Is Climate Change to Blame for Oklahoma Tornado? asks an article by Mother Jones/Climate Desk, and breaks down what causes a tornado in search of answers.

First, you need warm, humid air for moisture.
Second, you need strong jet stream winds to provide lift.
Third, you need strong wind shear (wind changing directions and/or changing speed at different heights) to allow for full instability and lift.
Fourth, you need something to ignite the storm. In this case, a frontal boundary (signified by those lines we see on TV weather maps).

A simple recipe. BUT does climate change strengthen that recipe?  Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island gave an impassioned speech ripping into Republicans shortly after the tornado had hit, leaving little doubt what he thought:

We are stuck in this together. When cyclones tear up Oklahoma and hurricanes swamp Alabama and wildfires scorch Texas, you come to us, the rest of the country, for billions of dollars to recover. And the damage that your polluters and deniers are doing doesn’t just hit Oklahoma and Alabama and Texas. It hits Rhode Island with floods and storms. It hits Oregon with acidified seas, it hits Montana with dying forests. So, like it or not, we’re in this together.

Image from the movie Twister

Image from the movie Twister

You can be certain that ol’ Mr. Whitehouse got reamed right back by his conservative counterparts.  While I do NOT want to defend the GOP position on climate change, on this one thing they have a leg to stand on- perhaps a wobbly one, but still.  “It’s a damn difficult thing to predict,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate change expert at Princeton University.

Both Oppenheimer and Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann concede there is much yet to learn. Climate change is supposed to bring warmer and moister air to Earth. Actually check-check on ingredients one and two from our recipe above. Yet climate change forecasts predict a lessened wind shear – no check on ingredient three.   Some wonder if it may mean fewer tornadoes in frequency, but larger ones when they DO occur??

Michael Mann makes the point that the insurance industry is fastidiously studying the probabilities on this exact question (lest they lose their shirts!):

If one factor is likely to be favorable and the other is a wild card, it’s still more likely that the product of the two factors will be favorable,” said Mann. “Thus, if you’re a betting person — or the insurance or reinsurance industry, for that matter — you’d probably go with a prediction of greater frequency and intensity of tornadoes as a result of human-caused climate change.

One thing I have learned in speaking with climate change scientists over the years is that they will never attribute any one weather event to climate change.  Rather, they’ll give you the Barry Bond analogy.  You simply can’t say, this home run was “natural Bond” and this one was “steroid Bond”.  What we know is that every time he stepped up to the plate, steroids increased the probability for a home run.

Likewise, when the weather steps up to the plate …and picture the planet at short stop with no glove… we’ve been giving “Mr. Weather” all the ‘roids he needs to rage.