OK, What is With All This Extreme Weather?

Written by Sarene Marshall on . Posted in Extreme weather, Learn

This blog post can also be seen at The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog.

This has been an extremely scary week of weather in the United States. Last Friday, a tornado ripped through the St. Louis airport (watch this dramatic footage) and then on Wednesday a series of tornadoes tore through the southern U.S. – killing more than 280 people. Tornadoes also touched down close to my home in the Washington, D.C. area, and a series of severe thunderstorms here have brought high winds, hail and intense lightning.

The damage to people, communities and livelihoods across our country is still being assessed, but, taken all together, these developments are downright scary. And folks want to know why this extreme weather is happening and with intensities we are not accustomed to seeing.

The answer is not a simple one. But, yesterday, I ventured back onto Fox News (see the 2-minute segment above), following up an earlier appearance, to discuss the connection between extreme weather events and climate change impacts caused by carbon pollution.

The main point I wanted to make: with continued high levels of carbon pollution comes more overall warming. These carbon emissions — and the resultant warming Earth — are destabilizing our climate, and creating conditions consistent with the more frequent and intense storm activity we’re seeing today, and that climate scientists are projecting will increase in the coming decades.

The important thing to remember is that our planet is a system. It could be compared to our bodies. Imagine your body temperature increasing by just 2 or 3 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a fever. Your body would react in different ways, such as sweating, weakness, aches, and nausea. The same goes for our planet’s system. Carbon pollution is making our planet sick and extreme weather is one symptom.

Despite the range of opinions featured in the Fox News segment, no one denied that climate change is happening or that warmer air holds more moisture (which can lead to more frequent and intense storms). The piece also rightly points out that making connections to any one specific weather event is a complex matter.

While it may be difficult to connect this particular week of tornadoes to climate change, scientists have long been predicting that carbon pollution would cause more frequent and extreme weather events such as intense rainstorms, snowstorms, and heat waves and create conditions that may fuel stronger hurricanes. And we’ve certainly seen all of these things in recent times at levels that seem out of the ordinary.

However, there is still time for us to reduce carbon pollution and, in the process, slow down rising global temperatures that can fuel natural disasters and put people and property at risk. We at the Conservancy are working on this every day.

Sarene Marshall is managing director of The Nature Conservancy’s global climate change program.

Video courtesy of Fox News.

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Comments (8)

  • annonymous


    it’s called TORNADO valley for a reason. during the tornado season, tornadoes are going to appear during storms. it’s not because of carbon in the atmosphere or pollution on the beaches. it’s always been like this, throughout history. whether we clean the earth or not, things like this are bound to happen. it’s called nature at it’s worst. and, being the nature conservancy, i’d think you would know that.


  • Charles


    Give me a break it has to do with the cooling of
    the Gulf extreme weTher has been around
    for thousands of years ,1930′s, 70′s, ’11 . We also have allot more people scattered around plus in the last 20 years we had an exodus of
    People from the northern States moving south.
    Is it human nature to always put blame for
    Everything that happens , How pathetic.


  • Jonathan


    I like how the short quote with the FEMA chief had nothing to do with the interview they actually had with him. He said nothing about this “just being springtime. In fact, all he said was that we cannot forget that the South sees its own share of strong/severe tornadoes every year.

    Then the expert from Copenhagen states that there has been a decrease in strong to severe tornadoes over the last few decades, yet Fox shows a graph stating that there has been a dramatic increase in weaker tornadoes with no long term change in strong to severe tornadoes. So couldn’t you also say that climate change can cause more tornadoes but might not correlate exactly to EF3-EF5 tornadoes? Either way, even an increase in weaker tornadoes is more noteworthy than no change at all.

    Lastly, it’s been debated over whether or not climate change can affect the intensity of hurricanes; I’ll get to tornadoes in a second. I, for one, believe that yes, warming oceans and hotter surface temperatures provide the necessary mechanisms that create low pressure uplift; this is a given. When you increase these conditions with hotter waters and surface air temperatures, more rapid uplift occurs and fuels faster cyclonic (hurricane) development. This might not happy every summer, but it’s potential for this to occur increases. Now in the case of tornadoes, yes these are isolated events, but when you look at the overall scheme, tornadoes form along the cold front boundary, where the most dramatic uplifting occurs around a low pressure system. Warmer air holds more moisture, so when that cold air hits, all that moisture rapidly accelerates upward, creating conducive conditions for supercells to forms along that cold front. Does this not correlate with the potential for more, stronger, widespread tornado activity?

    I’m no expert in meteorology, but I have had a few classes on meteorology, paleoclimatology, severe and unusual weather, and oceanography. I feel like I would know more on this subject than some other people


  • Ben


    Don’t you think it’s suspicious that Fox News audiences are told pretty much explicitly, “No connection to climate change”, as if to even start thinking down that path is a dangerous one? It’s insulting to intelligent people everywhere.


  • Urs


    If it comes from FOX propaganda it is written and directed by the Fossil Fuel Industry – the ones that profit obscenely from uncontrolled carbon emissions.


  • Crystal


    What many news agencies fail to grasp in their haste to either blame or deny climate change is the role of La Nina. The anomalously high frequency and magnitude of tornadoes across the region this spring is consistent with a strong La Nina pattern. The current La Nina event (as monitored by NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Lab through their Multivariate ENSO Index, and other scientific agencies) is the strongest one we have seen since 1974. Guess what happened in 1974 in Tornado Alley? It was the last time the US saw over 300 fatalities in a year from tornados.

    As a scientist, I see strong evidence that climate change is impacting our weather patterns. But I also see a need for better understanding of how complex the systems are that produce the weather we see and feel. In this case, there is strong support for La Nina playing a leading role in the anomalous tornado outbreak, while climate change plays a secondary role that may include an enhancement of La Nina conditions or a strengthening of the jet stream.


  • James Richard Tyrer


    Your analogy is wrong. When your have a fever, it and the other symptoms have a common cause — usually interferon.

    The recent weather may, or may not represent a change in our climate. Excess Arctic warming is implicated in the exceptional cold last winter. However, other weather events appear to be caused by the El Niño/La Niña cycle which may be becoming larger. However, history has recorded similar weather events in the past so we should be careful not to mistake a cyclic time series for a long term trend. Still, it does appear to be a trend.


  • Netspiker


    Reforestation covering the major plain landscape of tornado alley would definitely reduce the heat feeding energy from the barefaced ground. If possible, complete healthy forest coverage on all the tornado origin plain ground would eliminate the tornadoes from happening. That would be 20bil$ saving for FEMA and private insurances. Besides, such vast reforestation would also generate a huge wealth and job opportunities. If combined with advanced utility scale drip irrigation and biomass harvest tech, local communities can benefit from the reforestation dramatically by converting the biomass into fuel and electricity and many other by products as well. Reforestation industries can absorb a huge population of low to middian level skills locally. See the example of Berlin, NH.


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