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

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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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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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