Climate change theorists point to severe weather, like tornadoes, as definitive proof of mankind’s effect on the ecology. Meteorologists tell us that improved tools and better forecasting are saving lives when bad storms strike.
But what’s really happening? Who’s right?
Let’s Look at the Numbers
The following table was derived from statistics published by the Insurance Information Institute. It shows tornado counts and death for the last twenty years.
Deaths per 100 Tornadoes, 2002 through 2021
If tornadoes were getting stronger, one would expect to see an increase in the number of deaths per 100 tornadoes. Conversely, improved forecasting and warning systems should lead to a reduction in that rate.
There are no discernable trends over this twenty-year period, either in number of tornadoes or rate of fatalities. The top tornado count was in 2004. The highest fatality rate was in 2011, due to an April Super Outbreak and the May 22 Joplin, MO tornado.
Is Climate Change Real?
Scientists study climate change by examining historical evidence found in nature — tree rings, pollen remains, ocean sediments, etc. Glacial ice cores drilled in Greenland and Antarctica provide glimpses of the climate dating back 600,000 years or more.
These records prove that the earth has experienced multiple ice ages and warm periods over the millennia. Proponents and detractors may argue over the current rate and causes of change, but one thing is clear — the climate is constantly changing.
Climate change may affect the number, strength, and locations where severe weather can be expected. But, the data (above) doesn’t show any clear direction yet.
Better Tools Mean Better Forecasts
Just a few decades ago, meteorologists would not forecast a tornado watch, in the belief that it would cause unreasonable fear. Warnings were only issued after a confirmed sighting of a tornado on the ground.
Radar systems gave forecasters the ability to identify severe thunderstorms that might spawn tornadoes. Often, rotation within the storm could be seen as a characteristic comma-shaped indication on the radar screen.
More recently, the new generation of Doppler radar systems have given meteorologists the ability to see wind speeds and direction at various altitudes within a thunderstorm.
Rotation within a storm can be clearly seen. Airborne debris can also be detected.
Powerful computers provide another tool, often called a “futurecast”. These computers use massive amounts of current and past weather readings to predict the weather hours or days into the future. These programs continue to improve.
We Live in a Connected World
Advance warning of possible tornadoes has gotten dramatically better, compared with twenty years ago. Then, television was the primary way to receive warnings. If you weren’t in front of a TV, you probably didn’t know a tornado was coming.
Today, you can receive weather forecasts, watches, and warnings on any computer or smartphone. Severe weather alerts provide attention-getting warnings on your phone or weather radio. You can easily view local and national radar on your phone.
Social media often provides near real-time reports and video of severe weather events in your area.
There is no excuse for anyone to be caught unaware when severe weather strikes. So why do people continue to die, if we know when severe storms are heading our way?
Tornadoes are notoriously hard to predict. When they occur, they’re usually only on the ground for a few minutes. You may have a very short time to seek shelter.
Your best protection is preparation. Decide on your safe space (or get a storm shelter). Make a plan and practice it until everyone knows what to do. Be prepared and survive.
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