It’s a question I’ve been getting a lot recently, undoubtedly driven by the tornado tragedies in Oklahoma—-“So what’s with all the crazy weather? I don’t remember this kind of stuff happing before.”
I suppose people think I should have the answers, being a retired meteorologist and now a novelist who features supercells, tornadoes and hurricanes in his books.
In fact, I don’t have the answers, but only because the question isn’t right. In fact, this year hasn’t been all that “crazy.” Take tornadoes, for instance.
In terms of numbers, the tornado count so far this year has actually been well below average. The six-year mean, nationwide, through early June: 898 twisters. Care to take a guess at how many have occurred in 2013? “Only” 512. Way off the pace. Crazy, huh?
But how about killer tornadoes? The death toll so far this year has been heart rending: 44. Far too many. But, curiously, even that figure is significantly less than the average of 209 through May over the past three years. Of course, that number includes the anomalously deadly year of 2011 in which 543 people were killed by twisters.
I will admit, there’s a legitimate perception that this year has been exceptionally bad. Two EF-5 twisters (statistically, extremely rare) have scythed through Oklahoma, one leveling much of Moore, the other snatching the lives of three researchers (and crumpling the iconic Weather Channel’s chase vehicle into NASCAR-like wreckage).
But beyond that, I think a big part of the reason things seem so bad is that we no longer are insulated from the “news.” Everything that occurs, whether it be an EF-5 monster chewing up lives and land, or the hunt for a terrorist bomber, plays out in real time on our TV sets, smart phones and laptops.
A generation ago, a devastating tornado or major manhunt would have been covered in a segment on the nightly television news; two generations ago, it would have been a headline item in the morning newspaper—-there might even have been a photo or two accompanying the story.
Now it’s “in-your-face” news, unfiltered, raw and emotional. And maybe that’s good. We’re a little less isolated from tragedy and fear. But it does offer the impression we live in a more dangerous world.
So you’re to be forgiven if you’re unsettled by the sight of parents clawing through the rubble of a school to find their children, a storm chaser yelling, “We’re gonna die, we’re gonna die,” as his vehicle barrels down a highway filled with tornado shrapnel, or the sight of a Weather Channel SUV tumbling and tumbling and tumbling, seemingly to never stop, after a being drilled by the biggest tornado on record. It’s gripping, gut-wrenching stuff.
But it’s not the end of the world. Danger has always been with us: tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, wars. There was, a few generations back, just more time and sensory buffering between us and headline-snatching events.
We’ve very little evidence, if any, that the numbers of tornadoes (and hurricanes) are being affected by climate change (nee global warming).
One thing we know for sure. Very few tornadoes and hurricanes escape detection these days. So it may seem like the numbers have increased when, if fact, they probably haven’t.
Another thing we know for certain. As our population expands, so do the targets for severe weather (and wildfires) and their attendant devastation. More homes now exist in flood plains, along surge-prone coasts, in high-risk tornado regions and adjacent to fire-susceptible forests. In the military, such locations would be called “target-rich environments.”
Finally, there are some regions that are just inherently more vulnerable to nature’s nastiness. Oklahoma, for example. In April and May, the state is in a statistical bulls-eye for significant tornadoes—-in essence, it becomes a free-fire zone for twisters. Later in the year, Florida wears a kick-me sign for hurricanes. It’s just a fact of nature.
It’s what we live and die with. It’s always been that way.
PHOTO: courtesy of Roger Hill; birth of a supercell near Levelland, Texas, 2012.