05.22.2013 1

Editorial: Tornados caused by cold air colliding with warm air, not carbon emissions

Within hours of a catastrophic tornado hitting Oklahoma, resulting in at least 24 deaths, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) took to the floor of the Senate to blame “Republicans run[ning] off the climate cliff like a bunch of proverbial lemmings.” He claimed “cyclones in Oklahoma” were caused by supposed man-made climate change driven by carbon emissions.

There’s only one problem. Tornadoes are caused by cold air colliding with warm air, not by carbon emissions, writes Dr. Roy Spencer, climatologist and U.S. Science Team leader for the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Writing on his blog, Spencer noted that “If there is one weather phenomenon global warming theory does not predict more of, it would be severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.”

Spencer explained, “Instead, tornadoes require strong wind shear (wind speed and direction changing rapidly with height in the lower atmosphere), the kind which develops when cold and warm air masses ‘collide’. Of course, other elements must be present, such as an unstable airmass and sufficient low-level humidity, but wind shear is the key. Strong warm advection (warm air riding up and over the cooler air mass, which is also what causes the strong wind shear) in advance of a low pressure area riding along the boundary between the two air masses is where these storms form.”

He added, “contrasting air mass temperatures is the key. Active tornado seasons in the U.S. are almost always due to unusually cool air persisting over the Midwest and Ohio Valley longer than it normally does as we transition into spring.” Reading that, Sen. Whitehouse?

If anything, an uptick in tornado activity in the U.S. is because of cooler air, not warmer air predicted by the rise of carbon emissions. That means, even if increased carbon emissions was dramatically affecting temperature increases, it would have little effect on tornado activity in the U.S.  To underscore this point, Spencer wrote, “More tornadoes due to ‘global warming’, if such a thing happened, would be more tornadoes in Canada, where they don’t usually occur. Not in Alabama.” Which, we would note, would necessarily mean fewer tornados in the U.S. as the tornado “belt” moved north.

But it’s not happening. Primarily, because we cannot control the weather. Cold and warm air masses have been colliding for millions of years, regardless of the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is just a basic function of weather and climate. Tornados are not something new.

All of which makes Sen. Whitehouse’s unscientific claims that Republicans and carbon emitters like power plants are those who drive cars nothing more than pure demagoguery. As Spencer put it, “Anyone who claims more tornadoes are caused by global warming is either misinformed, pandering, or delusional.”

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