The Tornado Year


CNN has an oddly phrased sub-head for today’s story about the unusual number of killer tornadoes we’ve seen this year:

The tornado that killed 117 people in Missouri this week puts the U.S. on track for a record-breaking year, despite improved forecasting and warning systems.  [emphasis mine]

“Despite?”  Why would “improved forecasting and warning systems” reduce the number of tornadoes?  They don’t control the weather, they predict it.

One gathers from reading the whole story that they’re talking about a record-breaking year for tornado fatalities.  The Joplin tornado is the latest in a string of tragedies, which meteorologist Greg Carbin told ABC News leaves us “approaching 500 fatalities for the year to date,” when “the average annual death toll from tornadoes has been around 60 to 70 people.”

“That is something we have not experienced in this country in over 35 years,” Carbin continued, “and it still looks like we’re still around the number nine as far as the deadliest year on record. So there have been many years in the past over the past couple of generations in which we’ve exceeded 500 fatalities in a year, it’s just that they haven’t occurred recently.”

In fact, overall tornado deaths have been slowly declining over the past three decades, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of a growing population.  They dipped sharply after the 1970s, most likely as a result of improved forecasting and construction technology.  They’ve held fairly constant, with a very slight decline, in each succeeding decade.  An article at BrainPosts. Com provides these totals:

                Decade                 Total Deaths                       Deaths per Million

                1950s                     1419                                       8.6

                1960s                     942                                         4.9

                1970s                     998                                         4.7

                1980s                     522                                         2.2

                1990s                     579                                         2.2

                2000s                     556                                         1.9

The total for the 2010s, of course, are very high because of the horrific tragedies over the past couple of months.  There’s little doubt this will go down as the worst decade in a long time, unless we’re extraordinarily fortunate over the next nine years.

“Fortune” is the key factor in understanding the Joplin disaster.  It was a twist of incredible bad luck that such a powerful tornado rolled through the middle of a populated area, and chanced to destroy the local hospital.  As a general trend, an increasingly large and centralized population produces greater odds that a tornado will hit a heavily developed area. 

Also, according to an article in the International Journal of Epidemiology cited by the BrainPosts essay, one of the primary risk factors for injury or death in a tornado is “advanced age.”  Medical science has given us an aging population, with more people enjoying longer lives, and more elderly citizens capable of living on their own.  This could be a factor in paving the way for more injuries and deaths when a tornado smashes through an area with many elderly residents.

Of course, you just know another explanation for the killer tornadoes will be offered.  You probably thought of it the moment you began reading this article.  The UK Daily Mail, which once again collects some of the most remarkable images of the devastation in Joplin today, asserts that “Many weather experts are blaming global warming.” 

Hilariously, they explain why any such “weather expert” would be a complete idiot or a deluded fanatic in the very next paragraphs – because “twisters generally occur when cold air hits warm air and, because it is almost summer, the air is warm over much of the U.S.,” while “Unusually cold air is pushing down from the north, contributing to major storm activity.”  So global warming causes cold air? 

No, wait, I forgot, it’s “climate change” now, and by definition, that can produce both cold and warm air.  I don’t know why the Daily Mail used the archaic “global warming” terminology.  Do the fanatics still call it that over in England?  If so, they really should take a cue from their American comrades and start using the more supple “climate change” formulation.

It is natural for us to try understanding a horrible disaster, and challenge ourselves to find ways we might prevent the next one.  Much good has come from human ingenuity rising to meet that challenge.  We nevertheless find ourselves rendered humble and speechless by the ruins of Joplin, and the knowledge that fate defeated science with a pillar of howling wind last Sunday night.

Update: Oh, for crying out loud.  Looks like Al Roker is on the “global warming causes tornadoes” bandwagon.

“We have had these tornadoes and earlier this week we had a tornado in Philadelphia. And so, you know our weather, or climate change is such now that we are seeing this kind of weather not just in rural parts of our country, but in urban centers as well.”