What's Up With All These Tornadoes? No One Really Knows

While we're not sure why this month has seen a record number of tornadoes, we should prepare for the worst

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Time's Bryan Walsh has a good, subtle piece on the difficulties of figuring out what's causing the record month for tornadoes in the South. The toughest question, of course, is what role climate change is playing in the devastation.

On the one hand, increased greenhouse gas levels mean higher temperatures and more moisture in the air, which as Walsh puts it, is "like adding nitroglycerin to the atmosphere." There is more energy for storms to play with. On the other hand, some models forecast that wind shear will decrease, cutting down on the number of destructive tornadoes. It's far from clear what the impact of burning gigatons of fossil fuels will have on extreme weather of this type in the South.

Climate skeptics use that uncertainty to argue that we shouldn't do anything about climate change. "What if it doesn't cause more tornadoes in the south?" they ask. But that's not how you evaluate a massive risk. It's like riding in a car without a seatbelt and saying, "What if I don't get in an accident?" Even if it's unlikely, the possibility should cause us to prepare for the bad scenarios. And in some ways, the uncertainty makes it worse. We've already locked in decades of warming from the emissions we've already put in the air. What if global warming *does* cause more and more powerful tornadoes in the south? What then?

Image: AP Photo/Butch Dill.

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