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First, let me express my sympathy for all those caught in the devastating path of tornadoes earlier this week.  To be caught in such devastating power of nature, recourse totally beyond one's ability for action, is beyond my emotional imagination.  I can only begin to imagine the pain for the families of the 52 dead and for those whose lives were otherwise struck by these storms.  

Second, we should clearly understand, at this time, it is absolutely impossible to tie any single weather event, any specific 'abnormal' temperature, any storm to the effects of Global Warming.

Thus, it is impossible to state that "Global Warming caused the tornadoes" with any confidence ... but that is not the end of the conversation.

Just as it is impossible to state that "Global Warming caused the California fires", even if Global Warming did fan the flames (see also Forest Chief Warns of Global Warming threat), perhaps the correct statement is that Global Warming did not cause these tornadoes, even if Climate Change fostered the atmospheric stew that led to the tornadoes.

From Jeff Masters,

Violent tornadoes rampaged across the South last night, killing at least 52 people, injuring hundreds, and destroying thousands of buildings. The death toll from the 2008 Super Tuesday Tornado Outbreak makes it the deadliest tornado outbreak in the past 23 years. The last time tornadoes killed so many people in the U.S. was on May 31, 1985, when 88 people died in a tornado outbreak that hit Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania. What is really unusual about yesterday's Super Tuesday Outbreak is that it occurred in early February. Only one other tornado outbreak in the past century killed so many people so early in the year--the great Warren, Arkansas tornado outbreak of January 3, 1949, which killed 60 people.

Tuesday's was a devastating tornado outbreak. But this shows the problem of isolated data. Nearly 60 years ago, there was an outbreak that killed 60 people.  And, that was in a United States with less than half today's population but also, we might presume, less adequate weather reporting and warning systems. How to rate death statistics?

Thus, is this unusual?

Tornado outbreak fueled by record warm temperatures
Yesterday's outbreak was fueled by record warmth over the South. Record high temperatures were recorded in Little Rock, Arkansas (75), Shreveport, LA (78), El Dorado, AR (77), Memphis, TN (75), Jackson, MS (81), and Charleston, SC (79), to name a few locations. A strong cold front associated with a powerful winter storm over the north central U.S. pushed into this warm, unstable air mass, triggering Tuesday's bout of violent weather.

"Record warm temperatures ..." Now, that is starting to point more directly to a linkage with Global Warming, at least to make this tornado outbreak 'consistent' with the types of changes we might see in the globe due to Global Warming.

As highlighted by Chris Mooney,

when it comes to tornadoes, last year the definitive source of climate information, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, explicitly stated that there wasn't enough proof to claim that they had been changing:

There is insufficient evidence to determine whether trends exist in the meridional overturning circulation (MOC) of the global ocean or in small-scale phenomena such as tornadoes, hail, lightning and dust-storms.

As Chris has also stated, a key challenge in this arena is inadequacy of the data to understand, fully, trend patterns.  That we can't prove the linkage is true, but that absolutely does not mean that linkages are even close to being disproved.

If we look to NOAA,

"Tornado season in the United States generally starts in March and continues through the summer months but winter tornadoes have become an almost annual occurrence, according to Harold Brooks of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration."

Just to be clear, the Super Tuesday tornados were far from the first to hit in 2008.  There were the 10 Jan 2008 Mississippi tornadoes. And, the same day, a "rare" (time of year, NE US) tornado touched down in Vancouver, Washington.

Hmmm ... Doesn't "tornado season in the United States generaly start in March"?  But what about these January and February storms? Does that suggest that something is changing? And, what could be driving those changes?   Correlation does not mean causation, necessarily.

When asked about this, an acquaintance with far more education in this domain responded with a basic tutorial and comment.

Necessary conditions for tornadoes:

  • A deep layer of mid-atmospheric dry air above a moist surface layer

  • Steep moisture and temperature gradients

  • High surface temperatures

  • Low level convergence and upper level divergence

  • Vertical windshear (change in wind direction and speed with height)

  • Atmospheric instability (air continues to rise once it starts rising)

Global warming has increased surface temperatures  ("surface air temperatures over land have risen at about double the ocean rate after 1979 (more than 0.27°C per decade vs. 0.13°C per decade), with the greatest warming during winter (December to February) and spring (March to May) in the Northern Hemisphere"), increased atmospheric moisture content ("increases in temperature lead to increases in the moisture-holding capacity of the atmosphere at a rate of about 7% per °C"), wind shear ("Mid-latitude westerly winds have generally increased in both hemispheres").

Certainty, no, but something suspicious?  In another piece of correspondence, he added information and reflected on the implications:

We certainly don't know precisely how they are being shaped but we are starting to have a clearer picture of what the regional climate regimes will be in a significantly warmer world.

He concluded with these points.

  • This is a climate disaster;

  • Freakishly warm weather was a precondition for this climate disaster;

  • It doesn't help that much to be in a rich country when a climate disaster hits your town;

  • The Bush Administration has decimated emergency response mechanisms and planning and research;

  • Climate disasters are guaranteed to be on the rise due to global warming;

  • Freakishly warm weather is guaranteed to be on the rise due to global warming.

This logic seems clear to me. You?

In any event,  let us return to the question of the tornadoes.

Reality is that Global Warming is changing the atmosphere, the oceans, having an impact on the land (although less, at this time, than humanity's direct actions), and is changing the environment in which weather and weather events occur.  That Global Warming will have some form of influence on tornadoes seems clear, what that influence might be seems far less clear in the science.

Thus, we absolutely cannot say, with any justifiable basis that I am aware of, that Global Warming caused the devastating Super Tuesday tornado outbreak, but we can, it seems, question whether fostered the atmospheric stew that resulted in the outbreak.

Originally posted to A Siegel on Fri Feb 08, 2008 at 07:09 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tips / Mojo: 8 February 2008 (48+ / 0-)

    Again, to be clear ... we can not state that "global warming caused the Super Tuesday tornado outbreak".  

    But ... ???

    In any event, if you're ready for a good climate crisis action, consider going to The Climate Project and asking for a presentation in your community, your school, your business by one of the volunteer presenters trained by Al Gore to give the briefing seen in An Inconvenient Truth.

  •  I think we should blame (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    global warming for any unusual weather.  And seismic phenomena too, if we can get away with it.  And then when people object, we can call them names.

    •  Having fun? (15+ / 0-)

      Look, this is an attempt to be careful in the discussion.

      1. No specific weather event can be definitively tied to Global Warming.
      1.  Tornadoes are, by their nature, particularly difficult to analyze in terms of historical record (better data (radars, such) on them with each passing day).  And, they are quite difficult weather events to collect data on.

      Yet ... changes are being seen in terms of tornado patterns / occurences (what about this March season start, which seems to be less relevant, occurring to NOAA).  And, Global warming changes do seem to create the conditions in which tornado outbreaks could occur.

      But, putting aside tornados, is this comment a suggestion that you do not believe that there is such a thing as Global Warming nor that humanity has a role in influencing the climate?

      •  No. I'm not. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        A Siegel

        Don't get me wrong.  You nuanced view is laudable.  Extremely so.
         My point is that it's far too rare.
         I swear there is nothing wrong on this earth that has not at one time or another been attributed crassly to "climate change."

        •  Mea culpa for taking a different way ... (4+ / 0-)

          Yes, it is far too easy for far too many to say "that is global warming" which then gives credence when Deniers/Skeptics to scream "see, there is massive snow in Denver, there is no such thing as Global Warming".

        •  Have you watch An Inconvenient Truth? (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Or attended one of the slideshow presentations?

          Or read the news about the western Antarctic ice shelves or the Arctic ice that will be completely gone within the next five years?

          <div style="color: #a00000;"> Our... constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men's minds. Thurgood Marshal

          by bronte17 on Fri Feb 08, 2008 at 07:36:04 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Yes, No, Yes. (0+ / 0-)

            The problem, of course, is that in ten years' time, if Antarctica is still mostly frozen and the sea has risen just a couple of inches (if at all), well then....then what?  Does not Gore get a wee bit ahead of the science when he forcasts sea level rises?  Has anybody pointed this out to him?  What's his response?  That he raises a convenient false alarm?

            •  Look, this isn't a game nor will the projections (7+ / 0-)

              ever be perfect.

              Just like Jerome's peak oil and $100 oil prices... we knew it was coming... we just could not provide you with the specificity of the exact arrival date. We had a ballpark... and that was still a home run projection mark that was hit.

              As for climate change... it is more than just rising sea levels.

              This is about the alterations of habitats and symbiotic relationships and the very thin shell of our atmosphere that we have no idea what awaits us at the moment that we tip too far and cannot ever go back... which some scientists are saying we are already there.

              There will be no Atlas Shrugging to plug the hole in the atmospheric dyke to save our planet.  And, sadly... we will not wake up one day and discover the horribleness of the situation such that everyone says, "Together now... let's fix this... immediately."

              Rather it will be a slow stew with violent perturbances here and there.

              <div style="color: #a00000;"> Our... constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men's minds. Thurgood Marshal

              by bronte17 on Fri Feb 08, 2008 at 08:17:42 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

            •  There is no benefit in denial, at this point (5+ / 0-)

              Just like the Southeast in its drought, many folks here ignore the obvious causes and get off on making 10th-grade snicker-jokes about Al Gore.  But they're the first in line for government aid.  

              And you, mr/ms lowercase bs: you can benefit personally and professionally by getting with the program.  Or you can continue to cast tomatoe from the sidelines.  Stay bitter and negative all you want.  But I'm on-board, my industry and company are growing exponentially, and I've never been more stoked about contributing to my economy, family and community.  

  •  'round here (11+ / 0-)

    we are celebrating the anniversary of Blizzard of '78.  54 people died.

    Extreme weather in any direction is deadly.  And I fear that we are just pushing the buffering capacity of the system much too hard, and we'll just be seeing more and more.  I hope that extreme and unpredictable do not become commonplace and ordinary.

    •  holy crap! (7+ / 0-)

      i remember that storm (i was in central maine; no school for two consecutive days).

      i also, oddly enough, remember the 10 year anniversary. i was then in my senior year at tufts, and the globe had a bunch of retrospective coverage, including a check-in with the then-just-turning-10 twin boys who were born in the midst of that wintery hell.

      Time for Miles to soothe me again, because jazz is the antibush. --zic

      by homo neurotic on Fri Feb 08, 2008 at 07:23:33 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I spent the summer of 1979 in Waltham... (0+ / 0-)

      ...and hung out with people from Lynn, Revere, and Malden who lived through that storm.  The woman from Lynn that I knew told me about how she got such bad cabin fever that she walked down to Revere (the sidewalks were dug out, but the roads were impassible) and hung out with her friends watching the Revere girls trying to hitch rides on the Massachusetts National Guard vehicles (the Guard was called out to maintain order, things were so bad).  The next day, she and her buddies from Revere walked to Malden, where there was a party of all their friends (later, my friends) from all over the North Shore.   They stayed there until the crisis was over and people could get back to work and school.

      Somehow, I have trouble imagining that happening in southern California after a great earthquake.

      "Iraq: the bravest 1% fighting for the richest 1%." ~ An Unknown Kossack.

      by Neon Vincent on Sat Feb 09, 2008 at 01:47:47 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  caution is critically necessary (13+ / 0-)

    when discussing weather and climate (change) in the same breath.

    so, thanks, for being simultaneously cautious and clear.

    without question in my mind, an anthropogenically-perturbed global climate system yields conditions that favor extreme events--outliers both in terms of magnitude, and in terms of seasonality.

    absolutely not the same as saying that global warming caused such-and-such event.

    it's achingly complex shit, and i only know just scarely enough of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics (and statistics!) to get just how climate modelling is far more about question refinement than it is about answer surety.

    great job, per usual.

    Time for Miles to soothe me again, because jazz is the antibush. --zic

    by homo neurotic on Fri Feb 08, 2008 at 07:20:40 PM PST

  •  I blame Huckabee (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    It was God's way of answering his phone call.

    This is not a sig-line.

    by Joffan on Fri Feb 08, 2008 at 07:21:40 PM PST

  •  Obama didn't cause the tornados either! Did he? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    A Siegel, oriole223

    (I'm sure there's a diary here somewhere blaming either Obama or Hillary.)

    Social advance depends as much upon the process through which it is secured as upon the result itself. --Jane Addams

    by shock on Fri Feb 08, 2008 at 07:22:38 PM PST

  •  I don't think it is particularly helpful (0+ / 0-)

    to draw global warming conclusions from weather events.

    As you know, climate is long term weather... not day to day weather.

    The important thing is to prove that the circulation is changing or that the mean position of the mid-latitude jet is changing.  This whole year has been one of pretty significant northern precipitation and so the penetration of cold arctic air into the gulf states may be part of the anomaly which gave conditions for this storm.

    What is more useful is to look at the statistics...

    are there more tornadoes per year?  

    is the frequency of springtime tornadoes increasing?

    will warm gulf waters maintain high wintertime wet air masses which will be available for the energy for mesocyclones when cold fronts move through?

    is there indication that the upper level (500 mb) geopotential heights are significantly different in a warming climate?

    All these are plausible but not yet convincing for me.  Like the 2005 hurricane season, one bad year doesn't necessarily bode a changed climate.

    If you want to vote for somebody with whom you are in perfect agreement, be prepared to put your name on the ballot : Tom Schaller

    by captainlaser on Fri Feb 08, 2008 at 07:39:38 PM PST

    •  This started ... (4+ / 0-)

      with someone querying "did Global Warming caused the tornadoes" ...  And, the answer is no but it leads to the question of 'what is GW's implications for tornadoes?' And, look into it, you will see that some of your questions ("more tonadoes"), the data is quite murky (our collection ability is so much improved).  And, frequency is truly unclear in terms of what the experts see.  But, there seems to be those focusing on this who are beginning to put the case that GW means worsening tornadoes.  

      And, just as one weather event doesn't prove/disprove GW, neither does one weather season.  

      And, go through some of the links for additional material.

  •  Say you live on a farm upriver from a bridge (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    There are torrential rains one weekend, the river washes out the bridge, and several people drown in the river.

    While in the river, did they they drown in the water that ran off your farm or in some other water?

    That's pretty much what the title of this diary asks.

    Were the tornadoes caused by the heat that global warming added to the atmosphere in, say, the last ten years or by some other heat in the atmosphere?

  •  "God's punishment because so many (0+ / 0-)

    Americans use his name so cheaply" I expect to hear some preacher say.

    Well, not really.

    Until we break the corporate virtual monopoly on what we hear and see, we keep losing, don't matter what we do.

    by Jim P on Fri Feb 08, 2008 at 07:57:09 PM PST

  •  Not strong enough (6+ / 0-)

    It is too simplistic to say that the tornadoes were caused by global warming however you can demonstrate that such violent and out-of-season events are consistent with models of global warming.

    This is a bit like proposing say that Obama is surging and showing that one polling organization has a poll showing and increase in his popularity. The poll will be evidence that a surge is going on. In the same way it can be shown that there have been consistent changes in the seasonal patterns and that this year spring weather patterns have come particularly early in northern countries. My Thursday diary shows that in the UK spring has already started. That is just over two months early compared to recent years when the springs have been five or six weeks early.

    There is absolute evidence that weather patterns have changed over the last 200 years. I live in a building constructed in the 1790s. The increased intensity of rainfall, especially in the summer, has overwhelmed the roof guttering and drainage and has had to be re-engineered to stop the extra water flooding the building internally. Other properties of this age have had similar problems.

  •  THAT certainly occurred to me, A Siegel (7+ / 0-)


    Thank you for this much more comprehensive discussion of the topic.

    1-20-09 The Darkness Ends "Where cruelty exists, law does not." ~ Alberto Mora

    by noweasels on Fri Feb 08, 2008 at 08:36:07 PM PST

  •  La Nina and the South East Ridge (7+ / 0-)

    Can't believe no one here mentioned them...sure global warming can be a factor. probably is. but this year has seen a powerful La Nina along with a stubborn warm ridge inthe southeast that is causing all kinds of crazy weather. NYC will probably go snowless this year; so will Philly. Baltimore area had some earlier, and Boston did in Dec., but all the snow has been north of I-80 this year and that ain't likely to change before is gobal warming a factor too? i think it is, but you'd be surprised how many people will tell you flat out they don't think global warming exists, starting with Accuweather's Joe Bastardi, who writes essays "debunking" global warming and even thinks we are heading into a cooling period based on some precedent he dug from 1949-50. Joe's a meteorologist so that gives him street cred with folks who don't know the difference between PhD level climate scientists and the TV the way we had temps inthe 70's in parts of NJ and I dared anyone on a weather forum to find me some other examples of that happening in the dead of winter before, and so far no one has...

    •  not that I'm a fan of Joe Bastardi, but (0+ / 0-)

      I heard him say once on Larry King "I'm not denying that there is a human component to global temperature change."  I've never seen one of his stories debunking global warming, but there are plenty of articles on his site,, which support anthropogenic climate change.

      •  scroll through some of thelinks (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Neon Vincent

        bastardi isn't inthe AGW camp, unless my reading comprehension sucks...he also was adamant during katrina and Rita that AGW was not responsible. The guy who runs the climate change blog there is ok,I think it is Brett Anderson, but some of the posters are just intolerableintheir beliefs ( it is sunspots, moontides, the age of aquarius, anything but global warming )not denying there's component to global warming sounds like there is BUT coming afterwards, andin any case JB couldn't hit the side of a barn with the correct forecast, esp. with snow...never mind climate

  •  Any wingnut should be able to see (0+ / 0-)

    that the tornadoes were caused by God being pissed at the Bible Belt Christians. I mean, isn't that what Phelps and his Looney Brigade said about Nawlins? That they supported the homosexual lifestyle and therefore God smote them? Okay Mr. God Hates Gays, what about all the Christians in the tornado-stricken South?

    Put that thing away! You're gonna get us all killed! --Leia

    by crose on Fri Feb 08, 2008 at 09:36:45 PM PST

  •  What about Pearl Harbor? (4+ / 0-)

     Adam, you've pointed up one of the key problems in getting global climate change addressed: how hard it is to make a direct connection between the small changes that are occurring versus the extent of the changes, the scope of the changes, and large events that follow from them.

    In a loose parallel, it reminds me of the lead up to World War II and the U.S. reactions to what was going on in the world. There were plenty of people who could see what was happening in Europe and Asia and were alarmed about the trends they could observe, but there were also plenty of people who didn't think it was a problem for the U.S., didn't think there was anything we could/should do, weren't willing to make any changes in their lives to prepare for what was coming.

     True, America did take some limited actions that had some effect (Lend Lease for example) but nothing requiring any real sacrifice or change.

      Then came Pearl Harbor.

       It shouldn't have been a surprise - I think it was in 1924 that Billy Mitchell predicted Japan would attack the U.S. He even said where  - Pearl Harbor and in the Phillipines, and the time of day the attacks would come. The only thing he couldn't pin down was the day and year.

       We haven't had anything like Pearl Harbor yet as far as global climate change goes, but there are some potential events. One would be the collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet. Another would be a halt or reversal of the Atlantic conveyor, the ocean currents that drive the Gulf Stream and the return flow.

        It looks more and more as though it is going to take something of that magnitude to convince the doubters and the deniers. (I think I saw something the other day about Tom Delay still insisting it just wasn't possible that human activities could be affecting the entire globe.)  As I've commented before,  a truly effective program to deal with global warming would be marked by... nothing happening! And that non-event would be used by the conservatives to declare the whole thing a hoax, like so many other things they'd like to pretend don't exist or didn't happen.

      The good news/bad news is that we're past the point where we are going to start observing events that can't be explained any other way, so denial is going to become less and less tenable. The question is, is the rate of change in our response going to ramp up enough to preclude the worst case scenarios or not? The two I mentioned above are not anything any sane person wants to risk happening.

    I'm going to close with one of Kauffman's Rules that applies here.

    23. Don't be boiled frog. Some systems are designed so that they can react to any change that is larger than a certain amount, but they can't respond to changes that are below that threshold. For example, if a frog is put in a pan of hot water, he will jump right out. But if he is put in a pan, of cool water and the water is then gradually heated up, the frog will happily sit there and let itself be cooked. As long as the change is slow enough, it doesn't trigger a response. Sometimes a country can use this tactic to defeat an enemy in a patient series of small steps. Each step weakens the opponent a little bit, but is "not worth going to war over" until finally the victim is too weak to resist an attack. (These are sometimes called "salami-slicing tactics". "Divide and conquer" is another version of the same thing.) While a healthy system shouldn't overreact to small changes, it has to be able to identify and respond to a series of small changes that will bring disaster if allowed to continue.

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Sat Feb 09, 2008 at 05:45:19 AM PST

    •  Delay's Denier / Delayer (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      gpclay, xaxnar, Neon Vincent

      quote would be wonderful to have, if you can trace it.

      The analogy to Pearl Harbor ... is one to consider and think about.  One of the challenges re GW is to figure out how to speak with different audiences, how to get the message across. There has been a growing amount of discussion in the "national security" community in the past year re Climate Change. Seems that the Pearl Harbor metaphor / analogy could work well there.

      Thank you.

      PS:  It would be a fantastic result if, in an economy dominated by wind turbines / solar power / high efficiency design / etc, in 30 years, deniers pull up my writings of 2007/2008 and get to laugh at me in my dottering age about having been "wrong" because, see, the ice caps didn't melt, there wasn't a major temperature rise, etc ... That would be a good end to a long life.

      •  About that quote (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        A Siegel

         I can't recall which blog I saw it in, only that it was recent. The context was he was being interviewed on some news show about the primaries and such, and the bit about global warming apparently came up in passing. That's when he made the comment that somebody noted. Sorry I can't give you anymore detail than that; it just happened to stick in my mind that he would still be in denial today.

        Of course, Delay has been saying this for years. I still remember the time he teamed up with another Congressman to block action on the ozone layer hole  and their names just happened to sum up the whole GOP policy on environmental problems: Doolittle and Delay.

        "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

        by xaxnar on Sat Feb 09, 2008 at 10:43:50 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  yes, but WHY do we lack the data to prove global (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    A Siegel, Rick Winrod, Neon Vincent

    warming? One reason is because bush has canceled or delayed the satellites designed to give scientists critical information on the earth's changing climate and environment."

    NASA canned a satellite mission:

    designed to measure soil moisture -- a key factor in helping scientists understand the impact of global warming and predict droughts and floods. The Deep Space Climate Observatory, intended to observe climate factors such as solar radiation, ozone, clouds, and water vapor more comprehensively than existing satellites, also has been canceled."

    This does not just affect data collection, but our safety now:

    Ultimately, scientists say, the delays and cancellations could make hurricane predictions less accurate, create gaps in long-term monitoring of weather, and result in less clarity about the earth's hydrological systems, which play an integral part in climate change.

    This is one reason i get so frustrated with the dems. The public is not in the global warming denier camp. If dems had refused to approve these budget cuts, then there would be one less bushie obstacle to getting the data needed to protect us now and in the future.

  •  Falwell: Blame Tornadoes on McClain (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    It's not 'global warming' that's the problem... See for yourself what Robertson says Falwell says God says.  

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