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Lots of talk, few conclusions on climate change and tornadoes

Tornado passes across south Oklahoma City, Monday, May 20, 2013. (AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Paul Hellstern)

Following the horrific Moore, Okla. tornado, an abundance of bandwidth has been expended on one particular topic (apologies in advance for expending more): Did climate change make the tornado worse? The bottom line is scientists don’t know.

If that answer doesn’t satisfy you, here are the basic reasons why:

1) Observational records of thunderstorms and tornadoes aren’t good enough to determine if their behavior has meaningfully changed.

2) Theoretically, a warmer climate has counteracting forces affecting thunderstorm activity; one of which would favor more/stronger tornadoes (more heat/energy) and one which would favor fewer/weaker tornadoes (less wind shear/spin).  A NOAA fact sheet on the issue describes the state of affairs as a “meteorological tug of war”.

If you want to dig deeper, consider reading Andrew Freedman’s fine synopsis of the issue: Making Sense of the Moore Tornado in a Climate Context

Or, if you’re really hard core, sift through Andrew Revkin’s very lengthy post in which scientists exchange views on this difficult topic: Seeking Clarity on Terrible Tornadoes in a Changing Climate

Finally, if you haven’t yet grown tired of this issue, here’s a partial list of mainstream press articles you may review:

Should We Blame Climate Change for the Moore Tornado? (Atlantic Wire)

No evidence global warming spawned twister (CNN)

Can we blame climate change for the tornado that took out Moore, Okla.? (Grist)

Was it Global Warming? (The Daily Beast)

The Real Climate-Change Lesson from the Oklahoma Tornado (The Daily Beast)

Oklahoma tornado: is climate change to blame? (The Guardian)

Science Can’t Pin Powerful Tornadoes on Global Climate Change (Bloomberg)

In the aftermath of the 2011 tornado disasters (Birmingham/Tuscaloosa and Joplin), a similar slate of articles appeared.

Forecasting the future of tornadoes may be tough, but here’s a high confidence prediction:

The next time a big tornado strikes, scores of science journalists will cover this topic yet again and not much will have changed.

Past CWG coverage of climate change and tornadoes

Tornado doom then tornado drought: Both linked to climate change?

Forecast: More severe thunderstorms in a warming world

Mostly cloudy: Linking climate change to severe storms in the U.S.

Weather disasters to increase report warns, climate change signal slow to emerge for some extremes

Is Climate Change Twisting Tornadoes? (this article is from 2008, and the themes haven’t changed much from present, 5 years later)

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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Jason Samenow · May 22, 2013

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