Climate Change’s Effect on Tornadoes

Tornadoes, with their potentially violent winds, are one of the most dangerous natural hazards on Earth. While tornadoes are generally pretty rare in any one location, they often occur in swarms. My research attempts to answer the question of whether or not climate change is making tornado swarms worse, and if so, how.

Tornadoes can occur anywhere in the United States but are most common east of the Rocky Mountains (see Figure 1). Tornadoes form from large thunderstorms primarily during the months of March through May. These giant thunderstorms are capable of producing very destructive long lasting tornadoes.

Figure 1: Tornadoes are most frequent east of the Rocky Mountains. Greens and yellows indicate areas with more tornadoes. White indicates no tornadoes. Data source: U.S. Storm Prediction Center 1994–2018.

Swarms of tornadoes are also most likely to occur during the spring when warm, moist air originating over the Gulf of Mexico collides with the still cool air across the Rockies. This occurs over a large swath of real estate from Kansas to Alabama and sets the stage for giant thunderstorms. The spatial juxtaposition of two air masses with different temperature and humidity characteristics produces an environment that is unstable in the presence of wind shear. The largest tornado swarm in recent memory occurred on April 27, 2011 (Figure 2). It produced 173 tornadoes that killed 316 people and led to millions of dollars in property damage acrossa wide swath of the Southeast. My research shows that tornado swarms are responsible for a large percentage of all tornado-related fatalities. My statistical models show that tornado swarms have about 10% more tornadoes and 50% more casualties when the instability increases by a 1000 J/kg and when the shear increases by 10 m/s.

Figure 2: On April 27, 2011 a largest swarm of tornadoes struck the Southeast. It resulted in 173 tornadoes that injured over 3000and killed 316 people. Each point represents a tornado and is colored by its intensity rating on the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale. The black line is the extent of the tornadoes in the outbreak

My models quantify the influence the environmental factors have on the probability of casualties (deaths and injuries) as modulated by the number of people in harms way (Figure 3). The probability of a large number of casualties increases with increasing wind shear and increasing instability and those increases depending on population. They also quantify the decline in the number of casualties per year and indicate that swarms have a larger impacts in the Southeast than elsewhere after controlling for population and geographic area.

Figure 3: The probability of tornado casualties (injuries and fatalities) increases as wind shear and instability increase in the atmosphere. The magnitude of these increases are dependent on the number of people in harm’s way.

While we know the ingredients needed for tornado swarms, we are still trying to determine how these ingredients might be different as the planet continues to warm.  My future work will quantify changes  in tornado swarm environments using climate change variables such as global sea surface temperatures and arctic sea ice. Through these models we should be able to better understand how climate change is influencing the risk of life and property from killer tornadoes.

Zoe Schroder is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Geography at Florida State University. Her research focuses on climate change, atmospheric environments, and tornado outbreaks. See more of her work here.

The feature image is from Wikipedia.

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