As southern Indiana, Kentucky and other midwestern states woke Saturday to devastated communities and a rising death toll, the world again was treated to pictures and video of mother nature's ferocious power and the merciless power of her most precise and terrifying storm, the tornado. Most striking to some is the early arrival of this year's tornado season, which usually begins later in the spring and runs into summer. For climate scientists, who have long predicted longer or more powerful storms and less predictable seasons, the events are an affirmation that offer no comfort.
More striking this week, however, was a little noticed hearing -- just a day before these massively destruction storms -- where the nation's insurance and re-insurance companies came together to recognize the impact that climate change is having on their industry, a direct measure of the financial costs on US taxpayers and private businesses.
Powerful tornadoes raked across a wide swath of the Midwest and South on Friday, killing at least 28 people in four states and bringing the death toll to at least 41 from a week of deadly late-winter storms.
The twisters splintered homes, damaged a prison and tossed around vehicles across the region, leaving at least 13 people dead in southern Indiana, another 12 in neighboring Kentucky, two more in Ohio, and one in Alabama, officials said. In all, the latest line of storms battered a band of states from Ohio and Indiana on southward to Alabama and Georgia.
"We are no match for Mother Nature at her worst," Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said in a statement, adding that he would visit the stricken southeast corner of the state on Saturday.
And the New York Times adds:
The storm systems stretched from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes and were so wide that an estimated 34 million people were at risk for severe weather, said Mike Hudson of the National Weather Service regional office in Kansas City, Mo. At one point, the storms were coming so fast that as many as four million people were within 25 miles of a tornado.
Why So Many Tornadoes?
According to the Associated Press:
While the main tornado season runs from spring to early summer, this year's early outbreaks show that tornadoes can form under a variety of conditions and strike during fall and winter, too. This year's mild winter and warm start to meteorological spring has upped the risk of dangerous storms.
"We've been in a very warm pattern all winter," said meteorologist Mark Rose of the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Ala. "Because it has been so mild, it increases our chances for severe weather."
That's the meteorologist explanation. Meteorologists as a professional class, however, have been very reluctant by and large to discuss the science behind global warming and climate change, as noted recently by Marvin Meados at the Huffington Post.
Climate scientists, though, are not, and their peer-reviewed research speaks volumes. Notably, a landmark 2007 study by NASA's Goddard Institute on Climate Science published this report, predicting larger and more violent thunderstorms and tornadoes in the United States as global warming trends continued. In part (emphasis added):
The central and eastern areas of the United States are especially prone to severe storms and thunderstorms that arise when strong updrafts combine with horizontal winds that become stronger at higher altitudes. This combination produces damaging horizontal and vertical winds and is a major source of weather-related casualties. In the warmer climate simulation there is a small class of the most extreme storms with both strong updrafts and strong horizontal winds at higher levels that occur more often, and thus the model suggests that the most violent severe storms and tornadoes may become more common with warming.
Climate Change: Insurers Confirm Growing Risks, Costs
In a press briefing on Thursday, representatives of the nation's top insurance companies, citing a year of history-making natural disasters and $1 billion-plus in damages, took a definitive stance, along with members of the US Senate, to confirm that the costs -- both to taxpayers and private businesses -- from extreme weather events will continue to climb due to the irrefutable march of global warming and climate change.
According to the Insurance Networking News, "representatives from The Reinsurance Association of America, Swiss Re and Willis Re and Ceres, a nonprofit organization that leads a national coalition of investors, environmental organizations and other public interest groups working with companies to address a variety of sustainability challenges, joined Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) yesterday to discuss the growing financial impact of global warming."
Here's a short video segment from Thursday, Cost of Climate Change, featuring Sanders:
“From our industry’s perspective, the footprints of climate change are around us and the trend of increasing damage to property and threat to lives is clear,” said Franklin Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America. “We need a national policy related to climate and weather.”
“As a member of the global insurance industry, we have witnessed the increased impact of weather-related events on our industry and around the world,” said Mark Way, head of Swiss Re's sustainability and climate change activities in the Americas. “A warming climate will only add to this trend of increasing losses, which is why action is needed now.”
Cynthia McHale, the insurance program director at Ceres, issued a more unequivocal statement: “Our climate is changing, human activity is helping to drive the change, and the costs of these extreme weather events are going to keep ballooning unless we break through our political paralysis, and bring down emissions that are warming our planet. If we continue on this path, extreme weather is certain to cause more homes and businesses to be uninsurable in the private insurance market, leaving the costs to taxpayers or individuals.”
Bill McKibben: A Link Between Climate Change and Joplin Tornadoes? Never!
Last year, in the wake of another outbreak of powerful and deadly tornadoes, author and climate activist Bill McKibben took up his pen to address the often cited reality that no single weather event, by itself, can be unequivocally attributed to climate change. This, however, is a fact that avoids the uncomfortable truth that climate patterns are shifting -- and will continue to shift -- as global temperatures rise. The patterns are unmistakable, and we avoid them at our peril. His tongue-in-cheek approach did not diminish his message, and it works as well today in the wake of renewed tragedies as as it did in the wake of the Joplin tornado last year. He wrote:
Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections. When you see pictures of rubble like this week’s shots from Joplin, Mo., you should not wonder: Is this somehow related to the tornado outbreak three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or the enormous outbreak a couple of weeks before that (which, together, comprised the most active April for tornadoes in U.S. history). No, that doesn’t mean a thing.
It is far better to think of these as isolated, unpredictable, discrete events. It is not advisable to try to connect them in your mind with, say, the fires burning across Texas — fires that have burned more of America at this point this year than any wildfires have in previous years. Texas, and adjoining parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico, are drier than they’ve ever been — the drought is worse than that of the Dust Bowl. But do not wonder if they’re somehow connected.
If you did wonder, you see, you would also have to wonder about whether this year’s record snowfalls and rainfalls across the Midwest — resulting in record flooding along the Mississippi — could somehow be related. And then you might find your thoughts wandering to, oh, global warming, and to the fact that climatologists have been predicting for years that as we flood the atmosphere with carbon we will also start both drying and flooding the planet, since warm air holds more water vapor than cold air.