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Tornadoes Hit Unusually Wide Swaths of U.S., Alarming Climate Scientists

Climate
A tornado in the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno left at least two people dead after it flattened a motel and caused widespread damage to a mobile home park on May 25. CBC News / YouTube screenshot

By Julia Conley

As the death toll in Oklahoma rose to six Monday amid an outbreak of nearly 200 tornadoes across the Midwest in recent days — as well as in areas far less accustomed to them — climate scientists said such patterns may carry warnings about the climate crisis and its many implications for extreme weather events.


In Oklahoma, tornadoes touched down in at least two cities, including El Reno and Sapulpa, over the weekend, injuring dozens and leveling a number of homes. The tornado that hit El Reno, a suburb of Oklahoma City, was given an EF3 rating, with wind speeds up to 165 miles per hour. Only about five percent of tornadoes are given an EF3 rating or higher.

The tornadoes hit after much of the state endured severe flooding last week, following powerful storms that overflowed the Arkansas River and damaged about 1,000 homes.

Outside the Midwest, at least one twister touched down near Washington, DC, with reports of tornadoes in Texas and Colorado, and Chicago facing a tornado watch on Monday.

While tornadoes have long been a fixture in the Midwest, meteorologist Eric Holthaus tweeted last week that there is "reason to believe major outbreak days ... are getting worse," while climate scientists are examining links between the storms and the climate crisis.

The so-called "Tornado Alley," which covers parts of Texas and Kansas as well as Oklahoma, appears to be growing, according to a study published in Nature last year — making tornadoes more frequent in states that rarely saw them previously including Arkansas, Mississippi and eastern Missouri.

"What all the studies have shown is that this particular part of the U.S. has been having more tornado activity and more tornado outbreaks than it has had in decades before," Mike Tippett, a mathematician who studies the climate at Columbia University told PBS Newshour earlier this year.

As the Kansas City Star reported on Sunday, scientists believe the warming of the globe — fueled by human activities like fossil fuel extraction — is contributing to higher amounts of water vapor in the atmosphere, causing heavier rainfalls which can spawn tornadoes.

The increase in destructive tornadoes across wider swaths of the country than in previous decades "may be suggestive of climate change effects," Purdue University researcher Ernest Agee told the Star.

And the unusual occurrence of tornadoes in far more densely-populated areas than those that frequently see such weather events has led to concerns that tornadoes will become more deadly and destructive than they've been in the past.

"We get caught up on the climate aspect, but the real issue going forward with tornadoes — and hail storms and hurricanes and insert your favorite natural disaster — is the fact that we have more human exposure," Victor Gensini, lead author of the study that appeared in Nature, told Pacific Standard in March.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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