[media id="20473" embed="true" image="true" download="true"]
Hey, folks in the South -- you'll be happy to know those unusually nasty tornadoes that just blew through your towns and killed hundreds of your neighbors aren't any kind of serious long-term problem. At least not according to Fox News.
Because to think so would be to perhaps admit that climate scientists might be onto something to suspect that climate change might have had a hand in these extreme storms. Perish the thought!
Filling in for Neil Cavuto yesterday on Fox, Connell McShane invited on Marc Morano of ClimateDepot, fondly remembered by some of us as wingnut Republican Sen. James Inhofe's ex-communications chief. (I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn that his outfit is primarily funded by money from corporate sources like ExxonMobil and Richard Mellon Scaife.)
Morano was appalled that environmentalists might connect this week's devastating tornadoes to scientists' warnings of climate change and global warming:
MORANO: Well, this is following them blaming the tsunami on climate change, the record cold on climate change, the blizzards and record snow on climate change. This is them blaming record ice in Antarctica on climate change. This is them blaming any weather event on climate change. It's the latest incarnation. The problem is, this time it's even more absurd than the previous times.
Actually, Fox News probably isn't the place you want to be making this charge, considering that Fox anchors have a long and colorful history of using extreme winter storms to claim that it's evidence global warming is, in Sean Hannity's words, "the biggest scientific fraud in our lifetimes". Indeed, one of the more notable such cases involved Neil Cavuto.
And of course, Morano also repeats previously debunked falsehoods about the weather. For instance, it is a a lie that Antarctica as a whole is getting record ice: "Antarctica is losing land ice as a whole, and these losses are accelerating quickly."
To claim that the tornadoes had nothing, nussink! to do with climate change, Morano cited previous tornado data and claimed they showed "absolutely no trend" to increasing tornadoes. So don't worry about it, folks! Nothing to see here! And anyone who thinks so is just like those primitive Aztecs who cut out people's hearts to make it rain:
MORANO: So any way you cut it, tornadoes are not a crisis. For them now to use this is yet another example of climate astrology. They're trying to peddle the idea that our SUVs are causing severe tornadoes and our light bulbs and our industry and our way of life.
It's no better than in 1450 when Aztec priests encouraged people to sacrifice to the gods to end a drought. We actually are going back to a primitive culture where we actually think that we can affect the weather to this level, like a tornado is caused by our cars.
Yes, because being encouraged to drive a hybrid car in place of your gas-hogging SUV is just like having your heart cut out and sacrificed to the gods.
Morano then wrapped up by attacking discussions of the tornadoes in the context of climate change as "purely a propaganda tool" without even a hint of irony.
In reality, the trends aren't clear, as Bryan Walsh at Time explains, but there is unquestionably change in the patterns afoot:
And the answer is... Scientists really don't know. It's true that the average number of April tornadoes has steadily increased from 74 a year in the 1950s to 163 a year in the 2000s. But most of that increase, as A.G. Sulzberger reports in the New York Times, comes from the least powerful tornadoes, the ones that touch down briefly without causing much damage. Those are exactly the kind of tornadoes that would have been missed by meteorologists in the days before the Weather Channel and Doppler radar—scientists today would almost never miss an actual tornado touchdown, no matter how brief or weak. That makes it very difficult for researchers to even be sure that the actual number of tornadoes is on the rise, let alone, if they are, what might be causing it. The number of severe tornadoes per year has actually been dropping over time.
It is true, however, that as the climate warms, more moisture will evaporate into the atmosphere. Warmer temperatures and more moisture will give storm systems that much more energy to play with, like adding nitroglycerin to the atmosphere. This month's possibly record-breaking tornadoes are due in part to an unusually warm Gulf of Mexico, where as Freedman reports, water surface temperatures are 1 to 2.5 C above the norm. The Gulf feeds moisture northward to storm systems as they move across the country, and that warm moist air from the south meeting cool, dry air from the Plains often results in some powerful weather. But at the same time, other studies have forecast that warmer temperatures will reduce the wind shear necessary to turn a routine thunderstorm into a powerful system that can give birth to tornadoes. So in a hotter world we could see more frequent destructive thunderstorms, but fewer tornadoes—although some researchers think we could still end up with both.
Moreover, as at ThinkProgress reports, a number of scientists think that climate change is obviously part of the picture here, and ignoring it not only won't make it go away, it's profoundly irresponsible:
In an email interview with ThinkProgress, Dr. Kevin Trenberth, one of the world’s top climate scientists, who has been exploring for years how greenhouse pollution influences extreme weather, said he believes that it is “irresponsible not to mention climate change” in the context of these extreme tornadoes. Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, added that the scientific understanding of how polluting our atmosphere with billions of tons of greenhouse gases affects tornadic activity is still ongoing:
It is irresponsible not to mention climate change. … The environment in which all of these storms and the tornadoes are occurring has changed from human influences (global warming). Tornadoes come from thunderstorms in a wind shear environment. This occurs east of the Rockies more than anywhere else in the world. The wind shear is from southerly (SE, S or SW) flow from the Gulf overlaid by westerlies aloft that have come over the Rockies. That wind shear can be converted to rotation. The basic driver of thunderstorms is the instability in the atmosphere: warm moist air at low levels with drier air aloft. With global warming the low level air is warm and moister and there is more energy available to fuel all of these storms and increase the buoyancy of the air so that thunderstorms are strong. There is no clear research on changes in shear related to global warming. On average the low level air is 1 deg F and 4 percent moister than in the 1970s.
Climate scientist Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, explains further that “climate change is present in every single meteorological event”:
The fact remains that there is 4 percent more water vapor–and associated additional moist energy–available both to power individual storms and to produce intense rainfall from them. Climate change is present in every single meteorological event, in that these events are occurring within a baseline atmospheric environment that has shifted in favor of more intense weather events.
But then, at Fox News "profoundly irresponsible" isn't anything unusual. It's part of their business model.