Politicians Criticized For Lack Of Understanding In Response To Climate Change And Extreme Weather
May 24, 2013

Politicians Criticized For Lack Of Understanding In Response To Climate Change And Extreme Weather

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

In July 2012 the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released an infographic detailing the associations between extreme weather in the US and the evidence of climate change. In the report, the graph explained that strong evidence of climate change was seen in droughts, coastal flooding and heat waves, while limited evidence was seen for tornadoes and hurricanes.

However, on the heels of devastating events, such as last fall´s superstorm Hurricane Sandy and this past week´s Moore, Oklahoma tornado tragedy, policymakers and elected officials seem to come out of the woodwork to either place blame on climate change or negate the fact that it exists altogether. And these accusations have typically come without first having the hard facts in their hands.


Hurricane Sandy landed on the shores of New York and New Jersey in the fall of 2012, devastating the region, especially the coast of New Jersey. NJ Governor Chris Christie said in a May 20 news conference that there was no evidence that climate change caused Hurricane Sandy. While this statement can be viewed as accurate, Christie failed to mention that the storm surge produced by Sandy was largely due to sea-level rise, which itself comes from climate change, according to the UCS.

It is generally accepted among scientists that Sandy´s storm surge was more devastating due to higher sea levels caused by climate change. However, for the storm itself, there is not enough evidence on the table to place an accurate blame on or against climate change. But as NJ continues to heal, it is not yet clear if Christie plans to take future sea-level rise estimates into account when rebuilding the coast, noted the UCS. A Rutgers University report estimates the state can see a sea-level rise of 1.3 feet by 2050 and 3.1 feet by 2100.

While Christie downplayed climate change in respect to Hurricane Sandy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had a much different take.

Just a few days after the storm devastated NYC and surrounding communities, Cuomo said: "I think part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality."


As for the recent storms in the Mid-west that have produced several tornadoes this past week, with the twister that decimated Moore, OK at the forefront of everyone´s minds, similar climate change associations have been made during key political hearings over the past week.

During a recent Congressional hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) took the floor to discuss extreme weather and climate change, seemingly including tornadoes as a sign of changing climes.

And during a separate Senate hearing, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) took the floor, linking extreme weather events to the climate shift.

“This is climate change,” said Boxer during her speech on global warming, referring to the devastating Oklahoma tornadoes.

Climate change may be happening, but it is difficult to say that tornadoes, such as the one that tore through Moore, OK this week, are influenced by a changing climate, according to a CNN report by Elizabeth Landau.

Prof. J. Marshall Shepherd, a climate change expert at University of Georgia, concurred with popular scientific reasoning that there is no clear connection between tornadoes and climate change.

“This tornadic storm, in my view, probably would have happened irrespective of whether there's climate change or not," Shepherd said of the Moore twister in an interview with CNN. "The question is: Are we increasing the risk and probability of more extreme events in general as our climate differs?"

He added that more research is needed about future warming trends and the environments that might produce storms.


UCS climate expert Brenda Ekwurzel agrees. She said there is not enough evidence on the table to determine how climate change is affecting tornadoes. She added that in the wake of extreme weather events, such as Monday´s devastating Moore, OK EF5 tornado, people often wonder if such storms can be linked to climate shift.

Scientists, notably those working with the IPCC, see no clear link between climate change and both the number and the intensity of tornadoes over the past several decades. This “low confidence” assessment is based on the inadequacies of monitoring systems to measure extreme tornadic events.

Ekwurzel noted that a warming planet may theoretically drive tornadoes. However, she added that too many other unknowns also play a factor in tornado production, including warmer and moister atmosphere, jet stream location changes, and equator to polar temperature gradient changes. And because tornadoes are rare and short-lived, they are difficult to measure.

Scientists have long been able to measure other extreme events with ease, such as heat waves, flooding, and precipitation patterns. Being able to measure these events plays an intricate part in being able to assess how climate change may affect their severity. It´s difficult to do that with tornadoes, said Ekwurzel.

The best bet for tornado measurements may come from people who live in the affected regions. It may be important for scientists to rely on backyard scientists to collect data and report it to NOAA´s National Severe Storms Laboratory and University of Oklahoma through a smartphone after tornadoes have moved through their area. Data like this can only help in future tornado/climate assessments, reported Ekwurzel.

Better data collection can only help improve future warning systems. With the age of the Internet, getting the word out quickly in the event of imminent danger has likely saved thousands of lives. Also, advances in National Weather Service (NWS) monitoring and tracking have helped saved countless lives. Extra minutes to get to shelter means more lives saved.


A recent Wunderground blog by Dr. Jeff Masters has also looked deeply into the climate change/tornado conundrum.

According to Masters, the current tornado database is not of high enough quality to offer significant help to climate research. It is impossible to directly measure the wind speeds of tornadoes, except in rare cases when researchers happen to be present with sophisticated monitoring equipment. Basically, tornadoes have to do a certain amount of damage before intensity ratings can be applied to them.

The NWS only first began monitoring tornado damage surveys in 1976. The Fujita (F) scale, which measures the intensity of a tornado, was largely based on old newspaper accounts and photos of tornadic events prior to 1976. In 2007, an updated Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale was implemented. However, the transition from the old to the new system did little to help researchers study long-term changes in tornado activity. But one thing was clear; an apparent increase was being seen in tornado activity as the years progressed.

Masters said that “at a first glance, it appears that tornado frequency has increased in recent decades. However, this increase may be entirely caused by factors unrelated to climate change.”

The reason we are seeing more tornadoes today than 30 years ago is likely due to population, according to Masters. As the population grows, more people are seeing tornadoes, and as a result, more are being reported. Heightened awareness has helped, he wrote.

Tornado expert Dr. Nikolai Dotzek said the 1996 Hollywood blockbuster ℠Twister´ likely played a huge part in the growing reports of tornadoes, noted Masters.

But also, advances in Doppler radar across the US in the 1990s have resulted in a much larger tornado detection rate. And tornado damage surveys have become more sophisticated, often attributing storm paths to more than one twister, where they once were blamed on a single tornado.

Still, there is little evidence on the table that can attribute the growing number of tornadoes and hurricanes, and their intensities, directly to climate change. Further work will be needed to monitor these storms more closely to better predict what the underlying causes of their formations are.