Photo courtesy NOAA
Tornadoes and Climate Change
Definition of a TornadoTornadoes are formed by a combination of atmospheric instability and wind shear. Instability occurs when warm, moist air is wedged under drier, cooler air aloft. This warm air rises, causing the intense updrafts and downdrafts seen in strong thunderstorms — the incubators of tornadoes. Wind shear refers to changes in wind direction and speed at different elevations in the atmosphere. The combination of instability and wind shear forms the rotating column of air that we associate with a tornado. Tornadoes that form over water are known as waterspouts.
The link between tornadoes and climate change is currently unclear. One problem is the difficulty in identifying long-term trends in tornado records, which only date back to 1950 in the United States. Also, the population in many areas affected by tornadoes has grown, so it’s possible that tornadoes in the early part of the 20th century occurred without anyone seeing them. Improved technology, such as advanced radar, also helps us “see” tornadoes that may not have been detected decades ago.
Another problem lies with the physics associated with tornadoes. Researchers are working to better understand how the building blocks for tornadoes -- atmospheric instability and wind shear -- will respond to global warming. It is likely that a warmer, moister world would allow for more frequent instability. However, it is also likely that a warmer world would lessen chances for wind shear. Recent trends for these quantities in the Midwest during the spring are inconclusive. Climate change also could shift the timing of tornadoes or the regions that are most likely to be hit, with less of an impact on the total number of tornadoes.
Adding to the difficulty, tornadoes are too geographically small to be well simulated by climate models. Models can simulate some of the conditions that contribute to forming severe thunderstorms that often spawn tornadoes. Multiple studies (see here and here) find the conditions that produce the most severe thunderstorms are likely to occur more often in a warmer world, even if the total number of thunderstorms decreases (because of fewer weak storms). However, this work does not conclusively tell us whether tornadoes should follow the same trend as their parent thunderstorms.
Threats posed by tornadoes
The most significant threats from tornadoes are the dangers posed by strong winds and debris that is caught up in those winds. Although individual tornadoes may affect a relatively small area compared to large tropical storms, they can threaten people, homes, and communities.
NOAA estimates that, on average, about 1,200 tornadoes occur across the country annually, but several hundred more or fewer tornadoes can occur in any given year.
On average, tornadoes in the United States cause 70 deaths and 1,500 injuries per year. The death toll from tornadoes has dropped rapidly because forecasters have more tools to detect dangerous weather and quickly warn people to take shelter.
However, tornadoes still cause billions of dollars a year in property damage. The costliest year on record for tornado damage was 2011, when seven tornado and severe weather outbreaks each caused more than $1 billion in damages, and the total damage for the year was more than $28 billion.
How to Build Resilience
Communities can bolster their resilience and reduce the impacts from tornadoes by:
- Adopting more stringent building codes in tornado-prone areas
- Continuing to support new severe weather research and improvements to forecasts for severe weather
Heeding watches and warnings when they are issued, and ensuring that individuals can be reached by emergency alert systems (for example, through text message, television, and radio, or via tornado sirens)
To Learn More
Extreme Weather Event Map: Click on any circle to learn about one of the billion-dollar weather events, or any state to learn about billion-dollar droughts. All events occurred between 2000 and 2013.
This map shows billion-dollar weather events in the United States since 2000, as identified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center. The Top 10 costliest events are listed at the bottom of this page, along with a description of major U.S. droughts since 2000.
Floods, Tornadoes, Thunderstorms, Hail, Tropical Storms, Wildfires, and Winter Storms are all shown as circles, with the costs indicated by the area of the circles (see image to the right). The location of the circles correspond to places where impacts were experienced (note: locations are approximate; many of the events actually impacted a large area, beyond
the boundaries of the circle). Droughts are not shown by circles, but by the shading in the states – states with darker colors have experienced more droughts since 2000, while states that are lightly shaded have experienced fewer droughts. No billion dollar events have occurred in Hawaii since 2000; some of the wildfire impacts (e.g., fire seasons in 2006, 2007, and 2008) included damages in Alaska, but the markers appear in the continental United States.
Many of these events, including heat waves and heavy rainfall, are likely to become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change. Climate change can also worsen the impacts of some of these events. For example, sea level rise can increase the impacts of coastal storms and warming can place more stress on water supplies during droughts. But it’s important to note that not ALL of these events will necessarily happen more frequently as a consequence of climate change. The links between climate change and tornadoes, ice storms, and hail are unclear, and represent current areas of research.
These events demonstrate ways our communities and infrastructure are vulnerable to extreme weather, and that the costs associated with impacts can be large.
More Resources on Extreme Weather and Climate Change
Fact Pages: Learn more about the links between climate change and:
Weathering the Storm - Extreme weather is costly. The events shown on the map above all cost billions of dollars, and several events had widespread and long-lasting implications.
C2ES has investigated how companies are perceiving the risks associated with extreme weather and climate change. Focusing on Standard and Poor’s (S&P) Global 100 companies, we found that 90 percent of these companies identify extreme weather and climate change as risks, and most have experienced climate impacts or expect to within 10 years. Although some companies have taken action, only a few have used climate-specific tools to comprehensively assess risks and develop resilience plans. Check out the report to learn more, and to learn about the steps business and government can take to close the resilience gap.
- Drought in California (June 2014)
- Extreme Weather and resilience: Coverage from a Senate hearing on resilience (Feb. 2014)
- The polar vortex (Jan. 2014)
- Some lessons from Hurricane Sandy (Nov. 2013)
- Coastal flood risks (April 2013)
|Event and Date||Cost||Fatalities||Description|
|$148 billion||1,833||The hurricane initially hit as a Category 1 near Miami, FL, then as a stronger Category 3 along the eastern LA-western MS coastlines, resulting in severe storm surge damage (maximum surge probably exceeded 30 feet) along the LA-MS-AL coasts, wind damage, and the failure of parts of the levee system in New Orleans. High winds and some flooding occurred in Ala., Fla., Ga., Ind., Ky., Miss., Ohio and Tenn.|
|$65.7 billion||159||Sandy caused extensive damage across several northeastern states (Conn., Del., Mass., Md., N.J., N.Y., R.I.) due to high wind and coastal storm surge, particularly in N.J. and N.Y. Damage from wind, rain and heavy snow also extended more broadly to other states (N.C., N.H., Ohio, Pa., Va., W.Va.), as Sandy merged with a developing Nor'easter. Sandy interrupted critical water and electrical services in major population centers and caused 159 deaths (72 direct, 87 indirect). Sandy also shut down the New York Stock Exchange for two consecutive business days, which last happened in 1888 due to a major winter storm.|
|$30.0-$30.3 billion||123||The 2012 drought was the most extensive in the U.S. since the 1930s. Moderate to extreme drought conditions affected more than half the country for a majority of 2012. Costly impacts included widespread harvest failure for corn, sorghum and soybean crops, among others. The associated summer heat wave also caused 123 direct deaths, but the excess mortality due to heat stress is still unknown.|
|$29.2 billion||112||Ike made landfall in Texas as a Category 2 hurricane. It was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record by size, causing a considerable storm surge in coastal TX and significant wind and flooding damage in Ark., Ill., Ind., Ky., La., Mich., Mo., Ohio, Pa., Tenn. and Texas. Severe gasoline shortages occurred in the Southeast due to damaged oil platforms, storage tanks, pipelines and refineries.|
|$19 billion||35||The Category 3 hurricane hit SW Florida, resulting in strong damaging winds and major flooding across southeastern Florida. Prior to landfall, Wilma as a Category 5 recorded the lowest pressure (882 mb) ever recorded in the Atlantic basin.|
|$19 billion||119||The Category 3 hurricane hit Texas-Louisiana border coastal region, creating significant storm surge and wind damage along the coast, and some inland flooding in the Fla. panhandle, Ala., Miss., La., Ark., and Texas. Prior to landfall, Rita reached the third lowest pressure (897 mb) ever recorded in the Atlantic basin.|
|$18.5 billion||35||The Category 4 hurricane made landfall in southwest Florida, resulting in major wind and some storm surge damage in FL, along with some damage in the states of S.C. and N.C..|
|$17.2 billion||57||The Category 3 hurricane made landfall on Gulf coast of Ala., with significant wind, storm surge, and flooding damage in coastal Ala. and Fla. panhandle, along with wind/flood damage in the states of Ga., Miss., La., S.C., N.C., Va., W.Va., Md., Tenn., Ky., Ohio, Del., N.J., Pa., and N.Y.|
|$12.0-$12.4 billion||95||In Texas and Oklahoma, a majority of range and pasture lands were classified in "very poor" condition for much of the 2011 growing season.|
|$11.1 billion||48||The Category 2 hurricane made landfall in east-central Fla., causing significant wind, storm surge, and flooding damage in FL, along with considerable flood damage in the states of Ga., N.C., N.Y. and S.C. due to 5-15 inches of rain.|
Table 2: Drought Events since 2000
|2013||N/A||53||The 2013 drought slowly dissipated from the historic levels of the 2012 drought, as conditions improved across many Midwestern and Plains states. However, moderate to extreme drought did remain or expand into western states. In comparison to 2011 and 2012 drought conditions the US experienced only moderate crop losses across the central agriculture states.||Ariz., Calif., Colo., Idaho, Kan., Neb., Nev., N.M., Okla., Ore., S.D., Texas, Utah, Wyo.|
|2012||$30.0-$30.3 billion||123||The 2012 drought was the most extensive drought to affect the U.S. since the 1930s. Moderate to extreme drought conditions affected more than half the country for a majority of 2012. Costly drought impacts occurred across the central agriculture states resulting in widespread harvest failure for corn, sorghum and soybean crops, among others. The associated summer heatwave also caused 123 direct deaths, but an estimate of the excess mortality due to heat stress is still unknown.||Ariz., Ark., Calif., Colo., Ga., Idaho, Ill., Ind., Iowa, Kan., Minn., Mo., Mont., Neb., Nev., N.M., N.D., Okla., S.D., Texas, Utah, Wyo.|
|2011||$12.0-$12.4 billion||95||Drought and heat wave conditions created major impacts for affected areas. In Texas and Oklahoma, a majority of range and pastures were classified in "very poor" condition for much of the 2011 crop growing season.||Ariz., Kan., La., N.M., Okla., Texas|
|2009||$5.0-$5.4 billion||0||Drought conditions occurred during much of the year across parts of the Southwest, Great Plains, and southern Texas causing agricultural losses in numerous states. The largest agriculture losses occurred in Texas and California.||Ariz., Calif., Kan., N.M., Okla., Texas|
|2008||$2.0-$2.2 billion||0||Severe drought and heat caused agricultural losses in areas of the South and West. Record low lake levels also occurred in areas of the Southeast.||Calif., Ga., N.C., S.C., Tenn., Texas|
|2007||$5.0-$5.6 billion||15||Severe drought with periods of extreme heat over most of the Southeast and parts of the Great Plains, Ohio Valley, and Great Lakes area reduced crop yields, stream flows and lake levels.||Ala., Ark., Fla., Ga., Ill., Ind., Iowa, Kan., Ky., La., Mich., Minn., Miss., Neb., N.Y., N.C., N.D., Ohio, Okla., Pa., S.C., S.D., Tenn., Texas, Va., W.Va., Wis.|
|2006||$6.0-$6.9 billion||0||Severe drought affected crops in the Great Plains and across portions of the South and far West.||Ala., Ark., Calif., Colo., Fla., Ga., Iowa, Kan., La., Minn., Miss., Mo., Mont., Neb., N.M., N.D., Okla., S.D., Texas, Wyo.|
|2005||$1.0-$1.2 billion||0||Severe localized drought caused significant crop losses, especially for corn and soybeans.||Ark., Ill., Ind., Mo., Ohio, Wis.|
|2002||$10.0-$12.9 billion||0||Moderate to extreme drought was experienced over large portions of 30 states, including the West, Great Plains, and much of the eastern U.S.||Ala., Ariz., Calif., Colo., Conn., Del., Fla., Ga., Idaho, Iowa, Kan., La., Maine, Md., Mich., Miss., Mo., Mont., Neb., Nev., N.J., N.M., N.C., N.D., Ohio, Okla., Ore., Pa., R.I., S.C., S.D., Texas, Utah, Va., Wyo.|
|2000||$4.0-$5.4 billion||140||Severe drought and persistent heat over south-central and southeastern states caused significant losses to agriculture and related industries.||Ala., Ariz., Ark, Calif., Colo., Fla., Ga., Idaho, Iowa, Kan., La., Miss., Mont., Neb., Nev., N.M., N.C., Okla., Ore., S.C., Tenn., Texas, Utah, Wash., Wyo.|
Joseph Casola will speak on trends and projections.
Some skeptics have seized on a recent article in The Economist noting an apparent “hiatus” in global warming to argue that climate change is a fiction and efforts to address it are misguided. Those interpretations, which were voiced by some representatives at a recent House hearing on climate science, misrepresent both the article and the science it examines.
So what are the facts?
Political leaders in the Northeast have very different ideas about how to treat coastal properties ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. Some aim to reduce development along exposed coasts while others say let’s rebuild. How they proceed could set important precedents for managing rising flood risk along the nation’s coasts.
Motivated by concerns about more frequent and intense extreme weather, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo plans to buy back damaged coastal properties from homeowners willing to sell and preserve the land as undeveloped public spaces. Cuomo’s plan would use funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which requires that purchased properties not be developed.
Hurricane Sandy inflicted tremendous damage on New York’s coastal communities. The threat of more intense, more frequent storms driven by climate change has led Gov. Andrew Cuomo to propose limiting development in vulnerable locations. Just as Sandy provided a preview of future climate risks, the governor’s proposal may offer an example of one effective response.
President Obama’s forceful call for climate action in his inaugural address came after a year when climate change was barely whispered in the presidential campaign but its effects were loud and clear here in the United States and around the world.
As Hurricane Sandy moves out of the region, people in affected areas are beginning to take stock of the damage. Flooding in parts of New Jersey and New York from the storm surge hit record levels. The 13.8-foot surge measured at Battery Park in Lower Manhattan surpassed the all-time record of 11.2 feet set in 1821, flooding the New York subway system and two major commuter tunnels. Along the Eastern Seaboard, an estimated 7.5 million people lost power. Farther inland, blizzard conditions dropped as much as 2 feet of snow as Sandy crashed into arctic air over the Midwest. While early estimates indicate direct damages from the hurricane may be as much as $20 billion, the total economic losses, including losses in consumer and business spending, could be more than twice that amount.
A number of climate change-related factors may well have intensified the storm's impact: higher ocean temperatures, higher sea levels, and an atmospheric traffic jam that may be related to Arctic melting. Hurricane Sandy is also a clear reminder of how vulnerable our homes and infrastructure already are to extreme weather — and this risk is growing.
Statement from Elliot Diringer
Executive Vice President, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
Oct. 29, 2012
Hurricane Sandy is a stark reminder of the rising risks of climate change. While climate change didn’t cause the hurricane, a number of warming-related factors may well be intensifying its impact.
Higher ocean temperatures, in this case 5 degrees above normal, contribute to heavier rainfall. Higher sea level means stronger storm surges. And new research suggests that Arctic melting may be increasing the risk of the kind of atmospheric traffic jam that is driving Sandy inland.
But whatever’s behind it, Sandy clearly highlights our vulnerabilities to extreme weather. We’ve loaded the dice and events we once thought of as rare are becoming more common.
At a minimum, this is another foretaste of what we face in a warming world. It tells us two things: We’d better do all we can to reduce the risks by reducing our carbon emissions, and we’d better strengthen our defenses against future impacts that it’s already too late to avoid.
To get in touch with a C2ES science expert, contact Laura Rehrmann at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-774-5480.
The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) is an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan organization promoting strong policy and action to address the twin challenges of energy and climate change. Launched in November 2011, C2ES is the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.