Monday, May 2, 2011

The day of the killer tornadoes

First, a photo from a friend of my wife, shot in Cullman, Ala.:

Next, the video that must be seen to be believed:

This shows the number of tornado watches that were in effect at 5:44 p.m. Central time Wednesday:

I followed the storm coverage from Birmingham and then Atlanta online Wednesday. As I tweeted, there were colors on the weather radar that I had never seen before, indicating the intensity of some of the storms.

With final death tolls still to be determined, this is being reported as the second deadliest tornado outbreak in U.S. history, passing up the April 1974 "Super Outbreak" (commemorated in the documentary "The Day of the Killer Tornadoes"), and exceeded only by the Tri-State Tornado (which probably was a series of tornadoes) March 18, 1925,  among modern-measured tornado outbreaks.

The Meteorological Musings blog has a succinct explanation that may explain why so many people died Wednesday:

Here is some of what I believe is true, pending formal investigation.
  • This was a historic event. It appears (not sure yet) to be the worst tornado outbreak, in terms of number of F-4 and F-5 tornadoes (the upper 2% in damage potential) since April 3, 1974. It also appears similar to the "Enigma Outbreak" (same geographic area) of February, 1884. The latter is estimated to have killed as many as 1,200. 
  • When dealing with F-4 and F-5 tornadoes, there is no assurance of survival. For example, in Greensburg, KS in 2007, eight of the 9 people killed (out of the 1,500 in the tornado's path) were in shelter, including basements. The South has relatively few basements and many tens of thousands were in the path of these tornadoes. The bathtub offers reasonable protection for the far more common F-1 to F-3 tornadoes. It offers little protection during F-4 and F-5 tornadoes where everything is swept away. 
  • Earlier tornadoes knocked out the communications infrastructure. This is a problem I have not previously encountered. It was first reported by a Birmingham TV station today. There are reports that because of the multiplicity of tornadoes, the power had been lost in the first wave of storms and so TV, internet, etc., were not available when the second wave occurred. These people likely did not get the warning. We do not yet know how widespread this problem was.
  • Mobile homes. We talked about this less than two weeks ago. I was in Charlotte a week ago today and was told by insurance industry people that the tie-down laws are not enforced (no requirement for inspection upon occupancy). I have seen video of mobile homes that were not tied down and were without wind skirting. They also told me few mobile home parks had shelters. If true, this is a deadly combination. In the April 15-16, 2011 tornadoes from Mississippi to North Carolina, 86% of the deaths were in mobile homes.
The "communications infrastructure" referred to in his third bullet point may have included, based on reports of last week, National Weather Service radio. A morning wave of severe weather not only knocked out power, but may have knocked down towers. This is critical given that weather radio gets out the warnings before media, since the warning is given by computer then automatically broadcast.

There are two additional potential factors; one is a fact, the other is conjecture. The 1974 outbreak was in a country that had less than 200 million people in it. Last week's outbreak was in a country that has more than 300 million people, and the South has grown faster than most other parts of the country. All other things being equal, if areas are more dense people, the possibility for higher casualties increases.

From all indications, the warnings did in fact get out. (As they did during our tornadoes of early April.) Improved weather radar technology (in the 1974 outbreak, "weather radar" was World War II-surplus aviation radar) meant storms are easier to track, and their severity is more apparent. (And it certainly was apparent Wednesday night.)

One wonders, though, about, for lack of a better term, "warning fatigue." Despite the fact that the Weather Service predicted our early April tornado outbreak several days in advance, there remains skepticism up here about storm warnings because everyone can remember at least one time when the Weather Service got it wrong. As noted here before, to the usual tornado-warning criteria of a radar signature or an actual sighting has been added what I call a "STCOPAT" -- Severe Thunderstorm Capable of Producing a Tornado. (Such as the STCOPAT that sent us into our basement without a tornado actually occurring.) The South gets more tornadoes than here, so I can't say if the South gets "warning fatigue," but one wonders how many people were skeptical about the warnings until the weird-colored skies and the dreaded freight train sound, and by then it's probably too late.

Another reason I like Meteorological Musings is because the blogger is correctly skeptical about another popularly attributed cause for last week's severe weather: global warming -- oops, anthropogenic climate change or whatever it's being called these days. He quotes from (more accurately, tears apart) a New York Times story:

The Times' article begins with this statement:

The cruelty of this particular April, in the number of tornadoes recorded, is without equal in the United States.

This may or may not be true. The statement is at least premature. The NWS Storm Prediction Center March 8th changed its methodology which allows more reports of tornadoes and other severe storms to be logged (see first note here). We don't know yet whether this is a record April.

Tornadoes in particular, researchers say, straddle the line between the known and the profoundly unknowable.
“There’s a large crapshoot aspect,” said Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
It is correct that we do not fully understand the physics of tornadogenesis but we understand the conditions under which large tornadoes (like Wednesday's) form so we can forecast them and issue warnings for them with high accuracy. If you don't believe it, just scroll back through the forecasts of the last three weeks on this blog or, for Wednesday's storms go here or here for just two examples. It is hardly a "crapshoot." ...

The next paragraphs are, I suspect, the real motivation for this article:

When technology can predict oncoming storm tracks and conditions with greater certainty than ever, and scientists assert with growing unanimity a human impact on climate, what is a natural act of God and what is more correctly the province of humans themselves? Where is the place of psychic shelter in an age when the lines between fate and human action are blurred?
The prevalence of hurricanes, droughts and floods has been linked in many climate models to the impact of a warming planet. Such a connection is more tentative when it comes to twisters.
Ah, 'climate change.' The article goes on to discuss the Times' linking of these tornadoes to climate change. This linkage can be easily refuted.

This is a graph of world temperatures complied by the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (global warming advocates). I have placed arrows pointing to the temperatures in 1884 (the "Enigma Outbreak" which killed as many as 1,200 in the South), the 1936 Tupelo/Gainesville tornadoes (which killed 800+), the "Superoutbreak" of tornadoes in 1974, and Wednesday's. Note that these tornado outbreaks -- which killed even more people -- all occurred with cooler atmospheric temperatures. It is absurd to link Wednesday's tornadoes to current world temperatures!

The article goes on to babble,

If scientists cannot be sure — or trusted, as doubters of climate change might say — then where should an ordinary person on the ground turn for solace or strength in the raging maw of a storm?

Can't be "trusted"? As an atmospheric scientist, I resent this. Meteorologists have worked tirelessly over the last month to provide excellent forecasts and warnings of these storms that have been credited with having hundreds of lives.

Few publications can go off the rails like the Times when they want to find an excuse to write about 'climate change.' It would be nice if, occasionally, they got their facts right. 

But for the mainstream news media, which has thrown skepticism about the main cause and, more importantly, answers to global climate change that predates man and the Industrial Age (two words: Better adapt), facts get in the way of their story line.

That is the mainstream media's excuse. There is no excuse for this:

ThinkProgress: Storm victims kind of had it coming, didn’t they?

Unlike James Wolcott, the writer doesn’t actually root for bad weather, he’s simply using the tragedy in the South to proselytize for his belief system.
The congressional delegations of these states — Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia, and Kentucky — overwhelmingly voted to reject the science that polluting the climate is dangerous. They are deliberately ignoring the warnings from scientists.
Translation: ‘You know, it’s really awful what happened down there and all, but if you don’t believe in global warming, Gaia will end you.’

Thankfully, there is some pushback against this view from those in a position to know about such things, but I’m sure that opinion will be dismissed as heresy by the true believers.  There’s a bloody shirt to wave, after all.  Mankind must atone for its sins.  I do wonder, however, whether those who warn of the dangers of global warming realize that blaming all unusual weather on their favored boogeyman leaves them open to criticism like this.  Just so you know, that isn’t the only post at the blog along these lines.  JammieWearing Fool finds another.

Meteorological Musings also passes on information about how to help the tornado victims. Somehow, I doubt ThinkProgress fans (one of whom's address is at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C.) will contribute.

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