Apr 4, 2012


Thank God there are -- as of now, no reported deaths in the DFW area after yesterday's tornado outbreak. (I have friends there.) The devastation will surely take a toll on local economics, wildlife and ecosystems, however. The questions burning in my mind, how does this link to climate change? What's the history of tornadoes in the Dallas area? What size do tornadoes in this region tend to be? Are they often close to cities? What are scientists saying about the causes of yesterday's events, which threatened the lives of more than seven million Americans?

Turns out the climate science story on this is grouped under the very broad headline, "extreme weather events will increase as our climate system warms." More about that in a moment. Historically speaking, tornadoes in the Dallas area are somewhat common (see image below). Dallas County has had 75 recorded tornadoes since 1953, with the total number of fatalities at less than 20 people. (Good news.) But these tornadoes have historically been much smaller than yesterday's, with damages generally ranging from as low as $2,000 to $5 million per event. There have of course been larger moments, a string of tornadoes in 1994 looks to have caused well over $500 million in damages for instance.

Tornadoes in the Dallas area since 1953.

All of this info comes from scanning TornadoHistoryProject.com, which takes its data from the NOAA's National Weather Service. I recommend checking out TornadoHistoryProject, it'll make understanding (Dallas and other cities) tornado history effortless.

As an additional perspective, LiveScience.com reports that yesterday's tornadoes "came 12 years after a historical bout of storms that raged through Fort Worth and Arlington March 28, 2000, injuring 80 and killing two." That would be just about the worse single event on record. But yesterday, April 4 2012, will prove historic in financial losses. The Red Cross estimates 650 homes were damaged. Baseball sized hail ripped from the sky before the tornado, damaging rooftops, automobiles, and over 100 commercial airplanes, among other things. And you've probably seen the video of 15-ton trailers at the Schneider National Trucking Company lot flying through the air like paper debris -- if not here it is (note commentators trying to make sense of what they're seeing). This gives a good sense of what other large scale damage might have taken place -- highways, bridges, waterways, cell towers, power lines, pipelines?...

Had to share the Texas-sized hail, taken from this gallery

But the bigger story here might be that just a few days before Dallas's catastrophe the world's leading international panel of climate scientists issued a report saying it's time to prepare for the worst. They were talking about extreme weather. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a 592 page report about the importance of adapting to unstoppable, severe climate change, which is causing an increase in the number and severity of weather events all over the world. Their report compiles research from over 18,000 scientific studies to justify its perspective and was subjected to three rounds of expert and governmental review "to ensure its findings are firmly based in scientific and technical information." In other words -- these guys aren't bloggers...!

The Christian Science Monitor (CSM), who appear to have read some of this lengthy document (I haven't) printed the following summation, "The report spends the majority of its nine chapters exploring ways ... to reduce the risk to people and property from weather extremes." The bad news: "Researchers have indicated that even if countries slammed the brakes on emissions today, the climate would continue to warm because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries. The gradual-but-relentless build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution is an indication that humans are pumping it into the air faster than natural processes can remove the excess."

More from CSM: 
"Teasing out trends in extreme weather and identifying global warming's fingerprint are challenging, acknowledges Thomas Stocker, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Bern in Switzerland and co-chair of the IPCC working group that reviews the state of climate science. By definition, extreme weather events are relatively rare and require observations – of consistent, high quality – over long periods of time... But enough data have been accumulating during the past 60 years at least to begin the process. The report examines observed trends for the nine weather and climate features it considered, the likelihood that global warming is evident in the trends, and projections of how those trends may play out through the end of the century... Some of the highest confidence levels across these three categories are for trends in extreme temperatures, with somewhat lower confidence levels for extreme precipitation... In 2008, tropical cyclone hit Myanmar, killing more than 138,000 people. A year earlier, a slightly stronger tropical cyclone hit Bangladesh, killing more than 3,400 people. Both countries fall into the “least developed” category. But the effects were far different... For such locations, “climate change can impose additional stresses on top of the stresses already occurring,” Field adds. “For areas already close to the borderline, additional stresses might make them uninhabitable.”"
So what do we do? Well, damn sure we shouldn't make a terrible problem worse. If emissions are causing the problem then ... the "solution" as it were is 1) stopping emissions and 2) rebuilding our infrastructure to cope with and manage the likely escalation of extreme weather events, be they drought, blizzard, hurricane, tornado, hail, flood, fire, or otherwise. The primary limitations to accomplishing what needs to be done at scale seem to be not just inertia, but the fact that the vast majority of today's wealth is embedded in fossil fuels. How to change that? ... Please leave your suggestions below ... Meanwhile, extreme weather events keep coming. Here are a few recent ones from the CSM's 2012 USA extreme weather gallery.

Flagstaff, Arizona, March 18, 2012.
Snow covers a house and its surroundings. REUTERS/Joshua Lott
Henryville, Indiana, March 4, 2012.
A school bus, thrown through the front wall of Budroe's Restaurant,
as tornadoes cut a swath from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico,
killing at least 39 people. REUTERS/John Sommers II
Fort Worth, Texas, January 25, 2012.
Rescue Team checks vehicles as rainstorms and strong winds
leave thousands without electricity. AP/Tom Fox


See a local news blog, showcasing all the breaking news on the April 3rd tornadoes.

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