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About this week’s feature article

The tornado season of 2011 is already a record breaker. Is it due to global warming? In this week’s eSkeptic, Donald Prothero takes a look at this phenomenon.

Dr. Donald R. Prothero is Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He earned M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. degrees in geological sciences from Columbia University in 1982, and a B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of California, Riverside. He is currently the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 25 books and over 250 scientific papers, including five leading geology textbooks and three trade books as well as edited symposium volumes and other technical works. Check out Donald Prothero’s page at Shop Skeptic.

About the image above

Category F5 tornado (upgraded from initial estimate of F4) viewed from the southeast as it approached Elie, Manitoba on Friday, June 22nd, 2007. Photo by Justin1569 at en.wikipedia [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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The Record Tornado Season of 2011

by Donald Prothero

The national news is dominated by yet another set of extraordinary tornadoes in the southern and central United States. The last month brought enormous twisters, including the May 22 tornado that wiped out Joplin, Missouri, and paved a path of destruction in Oklahoma and Kansas as well. It has killed at least 144 people (so far), making it the deadliest single tornado since the April 9, 1947, event that killed 181 in Woodward, Oklahoma. Back on April 27, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was devastated, with a death toll that is still unknown as searchers comb through the debris. But on that date alone, over 327 tornadoes were reported, causing at least 344 deaths (149 of those in Alabama), with significant damage and deaths from Arkansas to Mississippi and on up into Tennessee and Georgia. The death toll from these storms exceeds the more than 300 killed in the legendary April 3–4, 1974, “Super Outbreak”, which caused death and destruction from Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio to Alabama and Georgia. These storms follow closely on the heels of major tornado outbreaks all over the Midwest and Southeast in February, March, and early April.

What is happening? According to religious end-timers and doomsayers, these are signs of the time that the end is nigh. According to conspiracy theorists, these events are evidence that the U.S. military is running secret experiments to control the weather from a secret station in Alaska. The truth may be less dramatic but it has the advantage of being based on the science of tornadoes and weather changes.

We understand the fundamentals of tornadoes pretty well. Usually there is warm moist air mass rising from the Gulf of Mexico that moves north and meets cooler, drier air from the northern Plains and the Rockies. When these collide, a strong front develops which causes a big horizontal cylindrical vortex to form. The warm air slides beneath the cold air and thunderheads grow. If there is also strong shear from the jet stream, the horizontal cylindrical spiral of air will tilt into a vertical funnel. If it continues to grow, it will touch the ground and become a tornado.

Because tornadoes are generated when these different air masses collide, they are most common in the spring, when the weather is transitioning from cold on the northern Plains to hot on the Gulf Coast. Thus, March through July are the busiest months of “tornado season,” although tornadoes occur in every month of the year. The U.S. has by far most of the world’s tornadoes due to its favorable geography. The Rocky Mountains funnel and block air masses, the warm Gulf air rises up from the south, and cold air masses descend from Canada.

The only other country in the world with significant tornadoes is Bangladesh, which also has a barrier of high mountains funneling the air masses (the Himalayas), warm moist air from the Bay of Bengal, and other similar factors. The world’s deadliest tornado occurred not in the U.S., but in Bangladesh on April 26, 1989, killing more that 1300 people.

The U.S. tornado season is getting off to a rip-roaring start this year, with over 1208 tornadoes reported so far, at least 875 of those confirmed (as of May 24, 2011). At this pace, 2011 will easily break the previous records for tornado seasons (although there have been seasons in the past that started strong and then fizzled). Of these, there were at least 4 tornadoes that were a Category 5 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, the largest known events, with estimated wind speeds in excess of 200 mph (322 km/hr). So far, 2011 is the deadliest year in U.S. tornado history due to the more than 322 deaths in the April 27 outbreak and the more than 144 deaths in the May 22 outbreak.

The good news is that these numbers don’t yet approach the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history, including over 700 killed and 2,027 injured by the Tri-State Tornado of March 18, 1925. That twister carved a path of destruction for hundreds of miles from Missouri to Indiana. If you look at a list of the Top Ten Killer Tornadoes in the U.S., most occurred in the late 19th–early 20th century, when there were no tornado warning systems in place and fewer places had tornado shelters. Today, there may be lots of dangerous tornadoes in a given year, but a higher percentage of people survive because of warnings and shelters and better building construction—even though our population growth and development are putting more people in harm’s way.

Are tornadoes becoming more frequent than ever before, just like larger killer hurricanes are becoming more frequent and energetic? Here, the evidence is still preliminary and inconclusive. Tornado data from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) seems to show a fairly stable but fluctuating trend of about 800–1000 tornadoes per year between 1970 and 1988. Then, starting in 1989, the trend climbs to around 1200 tornadoes per year, with big spike of over 1300–1400 tornadoes in 1998 and 2003, 1692 in 2008, 1156 in 2009, 1282 in 2010, and already over 1200 in less than 5 months of the start of 2011. There seems to be no strong correlation with El Niño or La Niña years, as once thought. A lot of scientists are currently studying the data, but so far as I know, no one has done a careful statistical analysis to see if this trend is meaningful, and whether it holds up against the records over the past century.

There are numerous confounding factors, such as the effects of larger more widespread populations that increase the damaged areas, and also a larger, more alert population that reports more tornadoes than 50 years ago. But it would not surprise me to find that the warming of the tropics that drives hurricanes also means more energy in those Gulf Coast warm, moist air masses that cause tornadoes, as was predicted in 2007 studies by NASA and the National Academy of Sciences and the 2008 study “Scientific Assessment of the Effects of Global Change on the United States.”

So hold on to your hats! It may not be the end of the world but by natural variation coupled to a warming trend we might just get walloped more this year than most.


Skeptical perspectives on paleoclimatology, climate change
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cover Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Future of Our Planet
by Dr. Donald Prothero

He begins the book with the “greenhouse of the dinosaurs”—a global-warming episode that dominated the Age of Dinosaurs and the early Age of Mammals—to introduce the science of paleoclimatology, the study of long-term changes in the earth’s climate. The book covers the possible reasons for past radical climate changes and extinctions—from a jungle climate in the Arctic to the frozen snowball earth—and what this could mean for us and our current climate stituation. No matter what your view is on climate change, understanding the methods used to analyze past climates will help you understand what the future may hold for the planet.
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cover The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What it Means for Life on Earth
by Tim Flannery

Sometime this century the day will arrive when the human influence on the climate will overwhelm all other natural factors. Over the past decade, the world has seen the most powerful El Niño ever recorded, the most devastating hurricane in 200 years, the hottest European summer on record, and one of the worst storm seasons ever experienced in Florida. Dr. Flannery outlines the history of climate change, how it will unfold over the next century, and what we can do to prevent a cataclysmic future, including what every one of us can do right now to reduce deadly CO2 emissions by as much as 70 percent.
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In this issue: A Climate of Belief; How We Know Global Warming is Real: The Science Behind Human-induced Climate Change; The Hydrogen Economy; How to solve the global warming problem by 2020…
READ more and order the back issue.


Mystery Photo

This week’s Mystery Photo
(Click to enlarge)

Solution to last week’s Mystery Photo

The Mystery Photo from May 18th is Temple Grandin, whom I met at TED 2010 and found to be one of the most interesting and remarkable people I’ve ever met. A true inspiration. —Michael Shermer

This week’s Mystery Photo

Talk to the hand! Where is this psychic shop? (Hint: think doomsday)

We will reveal the answer to this week’s Mystery Photo in next week’s eSkeptic.


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Demographics of Belief

In this week’s Skepticblog post, Michael Shermer presents an excerpt from the Prologue to his new book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics—How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as Truths. The Prologue is entitled “I Want to Believe.” The book synthesizes 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs.

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Full-time college or high school students can apply for a scholarship to attend the Symposium on Saturday, June 25, 2011. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included; travel and lodging are not included. For high school student scholarship winners, we’ll also cover the entry fee for one chaperone per group of ten students.

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25 Comments »

25 Comments

  1. Gordon says:

    I’m disappointed that you didn’t point out the best argument against there being an increase in the number of tornadoes. The increase is all in the number of weakest tornadoes, those that might not have been reported in the past. The number of most powerful have not risen.

    • Dr. Sidethink Hp.D says:

      “There are numerous confounding factors, such as the effects of larger more widespread populations that increase the damaged areas, and also a larger, more alert population that reports more tornadoes than 50 years ago. ”

      Direct quote from the article.

      RJP

  2. Donald Prothero says:

    There were several people confused about how cold air from Canada could rise over warm air from the Gulf, and thought I was mistaken. No, it is correct as written. It’s described in greater length on pp. 191-193 in my new book “Catastrophes!” The moist air from the Gulf hugs the ground as it sweeps
    north, and when it collides with a cold air mass, you generate a
    strong front. Initially the cold air slides over the moist warm
    air, but eventually the cold air will sink to the bottom and the warm
    air will rise, forming the warm moist thunderheads that generate
    tornadoes. That is what causes the instability of the air masses and
    makes the front so energetic and prone to storms. Indeed, that is the
    normal daily pattern of atmospheric circulation–as the sun warms the
    ground in the morning, it generates warm air that rises, and causes
    the cold air above to sink to replace it constantly mixing the
    atmosphere. Only when you get a cold layer sliding beneath a warm
    layer (like the inversion layers we have in LA or in Denver), then the
    air masses are stable and stagnant, and pollution can build up.

  3. Robert Sheaffer says:

    This recent paper says there is not any evidence of actual increase in North Atlantic tropical storms, and that the perception of that may be “inflated by observing system changes over time.”

    Is the recorded increase in short-duration North Atlantic tropical storms spurious?
    http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2011/2010JD015493.shtml

  4. Julio Alfaro says:

    Being naturally inquisitive, I took a good hard look at the mystery photo – and I have to conclude it is taken in Oakland, California.

    Why? Well, you said “think doomsday” – and Oakland is where Harold Camping’s Family Radio is located. Also, the phone number listed on the window of the psychic shop comes back as a Oakland cell phone number in a reverse directory look-up.

    So my guess is Oakland, CA. Taken on May 21, 2011?? Were you at the big Atheist Alliance party that day?

  5. Maurits Ch. van Holtz says:

    Might the increase of tornadoes not be due to the way mankind is giving in to blind consumption in a suicidal way too much, thus producing each own ecological extermination in even manipulable ways? Ever since 1981 October 6th educative “psycho-tornado tests” could get kept that way, which still noone seems to be able to believe, as You can see at my website http://www.tornadomirakel.nl !

  6. wayne kinne says:

    My question is do TORNADOES happen in other places around the world, or are the weather pattern that only occures within the U.S. ? I have never heard of then occuring any other place.
    Thank you……………..
    wayne

  7. Capt. BlackStrapp Molasses says:

    Answer to #6 The U.S. has more Tornadoes than anywhere else. Why? Because of the electric power lines that cover the US. generating flow with heat moisture and static electric power, same as any motor or generator, drawn to metal cars trailer homes and electrified metal in buildings

  8. kristy says:

    yo yo now that is what i call a tornadoes

  9. tara says:

    holy snape really dangres shit on this world

  10. yoyo says:

    oh oh ah ah yeeeeeeeeeeee

  11. nihar says:

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  12. anju says:

    this page is good

  13. Samuel says:

    I think America is hit most with tornadoes because of being flat most of the area.

  14. lucia says:

    tornadoes are dangeroes, we have to be aware!

  15. Cthulu says:

    I address you tonight, not as the president of the United States, or as the leader of a country, but as a citizen of humanity. We are faced with the very gravest of challenges. The bible calls this day Armageddon, the end of all things. And yet, for the first time, in the history of the planet, a species has the technology to prevent its own extinction. All of you praying with us need to know that everything that can be done to prevent this disaster is being called in to service. The human thirst for excellence, knowledge, every step up the ladder of science, every adventurous reach in to space, all of our combined modern technologies and imaginations, even the wars we have thought have provided us with the tools to wage this terrible battle. Through all the chaos that is our history, through all of the wrongs and the discord, through all of the pain and suffering, through all of our times, there is one thing that has nourished our souls and elevated our species above its origin. And that is our courage. The dreams of an entire planet are focused tonight on those fourteen brave souls traveling in to the heavens. And may we all, citizens the world over, see these events through, god speed and good luck to you.

  16. poopy pants says:

    everyone soooooooooooooo

  17. poopy pants says:

    everyone soooooooooooooo weird!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  18. poopy pants says:

    hey good stuf
    \

  19. poopy pants! says:

    what up, i feel drunk

  20. poopy pants! says:

    kissy kissy, i did something wrong, i didnt mean drunk i mean shit

  21. heyyyyyyyy says:

    hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  22. samer hasnain says:

    Does it also occur with the rain?

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