Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Tornadoes and Floods Underscore the Costs of Global Warming

This article was originally written in the spring of 2011 after an unusual number of killer tornadoes and floods ravaged the US, it reviews the increasing costs of extreme weather in a warming world. Tornadoes along with Hurricane Irene and most recently Hurricane Sandy, make a powerful case for aggressive efforts to address climate change.
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The wave of tornadoes and floods in the spring of 2011 are a small preview of what life will look like in a world ravaged by global warming. The US Global Change Research Program has warned of more extreme weather events in the future as the planet gets warmer.

When it comes to tornadoes, Spring 2011 was one of the deadliest and most destructive seasons in American history. The tornado that hit Joplin on May 22 was one of the deadliest tornadoes ever. The EF-5 wedge tornado, that swept thru Joplin was over a mile wide, it completely destroying about 20% of the town, killing 160 people and causing $2.8 billion in damage. The southern state tornadoes that touched down between April 22 and 28 are likely to surpass 2004’s Hurricane Ivan as the costliest natural disaster in Alabama’s history.

On May 24th 2011 we witnessed one of the largest geographical regions of high tornado risk in America history. This is the fourth such high risk day this year, meaning the fourth day where there are ideal conditions for the widespread formation of tornadoes  Each of the 3 previous high risk days spawned at least 52 tornadoes.

Although the total number is still unknown, many deadly tornadoes touched down on May 24th. In Oklahoma large, violent tornadoes touched down around Oklahoma City south of Hinton. Significant tornado related damage was reported near Canton and in Goldsby. 

Other tornadoes were reported in Dewey and Blaine counties as well as Logan County including the city of Guthrie. A tornado was spotted on the ground just Northwest of Joplin. The suburbs of Dallas just east of Euless and Lindell, Virginia also reported tornadoes.

Tornadoes are not the only natural disasters that are stealing headlines in 2011. The Midwest and the South are once again in the middle of record floods. The Mississippi River grew six times its normal size and police were forced to evacuate parts of Memphis. The floods have produced the highest water levels on record for the 70-mile stretch between Missouri and Tennessee.

Flooding could cost $2.2 billion in damage to more than 21,000 homes, according to analysis by research firm CoreLogic. The flood has also interrupted commerce along the Mississippi River. Flooding along the Mississippi was caused by large snowfalls in the upper Midwest this winter and a lot of precipitation in April, where up to four times the normal amount of rain fell in some parts of the region.

It is well known that isolated extreme weather events do not prove the existence of climate change. However, the floods and tornadoes we are seeing in the US are statistically anomalous and can be understood as evidence supporting global warming. Increases in snow and rain caused the flooding and increased precipitation is tied to climate change. Meteorologists are saying that increasing ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are spawning the tornadoes. (When warmer water in the Gulf evaporates and meets with colder air from the north you have a combination that spawns strong winds, violent precipitation and tornadoes).

The central plains states like Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri can expect more tornadoes. However, the extreme weather is not limited to tornado alley; a lesser risk is also present in the Midwest all the way through the Ohio Valley to the East Coast. Storms are expected over much of the US from the Northeast all the way down to Mexico.

As reported in the Insurance Journal, “The spring of 2011’s tornadoes have been some of the costliest, and deadliest, in US history,” said Dr. Robert Hartwig, an economist and president of the I.I.I. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service, the US averages 1,200 tornadoes a year, but as of May 17, 2011 we had already seen 1,076, with 875 of them occurring in April. The 70 tornadoes that were reported in seven Midwest states over the weekend of May 21-22, and the tornadoes on May 24 should push us over 1,200 with over 7 months remaining in 2011.

Tornados can be deadly and 2011 is on track to be the deadliest year ever for tornado-related deaths in the US with about 482 fatalities so far. It is obvious that floods and tornadoes have dire consequences for human life and the economy. In addition to the human toll, thousands of commercial buildings, homes and apartment complexes have been destroyed by floods and tornadoes.

The tornado that devastated Joplin, Mo. killed at least 117 people (1500 people are still missing). According to an estimate from catastrophe risk modeling firm Eqecat Inc., the Joplin tornado caused up to $3 billion in insured losses. Joplin is a city with an estimated 25,000 buildings out of which 2,500 buildings were destroyed and approximately 10,000 were damaged.

In April, three severe storms ripped through the Southern states, the most serious storm featured 178 tornadoes and killed at least 300 people, many of them in Alabama. According to risk modeling firm AIR Worldwide, the southern state tornadoes that touched down between April 22 and 28, caused up to $5.5 billion in insured losses. Risk Management Solutions, another risk modeling company, estimated the total insured loss figure could climb as high as $6 billion.

The Insurance Journal indicates that tornadoes have caused $97.8 billion in insured losses in the US between 1990 and 2009, making these weather events second only to hurricanes ($152.4 billion) over this same time period as the costliest natural disasters. In the past three years (2008-2010), severe thunderstorms, and the tornadoes they spawned, have caused about one third ($30 billion) of that $97.8 billion total.

On Tuesday May 24th, a house committee approved an additional $1 billion to help federal emergency crews respond to the devastation from natural disasters across the South and Midwest. However, Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee told Fox News that he wants to pay for the FEMA infusion by pulling $4 billion from the Department of Energy loan program to facilitate green technology.

Aderholt’s logic is fundamentally flawed, he completely ignores the fact that there is a great deal we can do to preempt some of the worst weather related catastrophes. Rather than just pay for disaster relief we can invest in green technology and minimize the extreme weather caused by climate change.

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