Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

It has been a bad season for tornadoes in the United States. In fact, this April shattered the previous record for the most tornadoes ever. Even though the count isn’t finalized yet, nobody doubts that it will come out on top:

In a warming world, many questions are common, and quite reasonable. Is this a sign of climate change? Will we experience more, or stronger, tornadoes as the planet warms further?

In fact, these are very difficult questions to answer. First of all, attributing a specific weather event, or even a series of weather events, to a change in the climate is extremely difficult. Scientists can do statistical analysis to estimate the probability of the event with and without the extra energy available in a warming world, but this kind of study takes years. Even so, nobody can say for certain whether an event wasn’t just a fluke. The recent tornadoes very well might have been caused by climate change, but they also might have happened anyway.

Will tornadoes become more common in the future, as global warming progresses? Tornado formation is complicated, and forecasting them requires an awful lot of calculations. Many processes in the climate system are this way, so scientists simulate them using computer models, which can do detailed calculations at an increasingly impressive speed.

However, individual tornadoes are relatively small compared to other kinds of storms, such as hurricanes or regular rainstorms. They are, in fact, smaller than a single square in the highest-resolution climate models around today. Therefore, it’s just not possible to directly project them using mathematical models.

However, we can project the conditions necessary for tornadoes to form. They don’t always lead to a tornado, but they make one more likely. Two main factors exist: high wind shear and high convective available potential energy (CAPE). Climate change is making the atmosphere warmer, and increasing specific humidity (but not relative humidity): both of these contribute to CAPE, so that factor will increase the likelihood of conditions favourable to tornadoes. However, climate change warms the poles faster than the equator, which will decrease the temperature difference between them, subsequently lowering wind shear. That will make tornadoes less likely (Diffenbaugh et al, 2008). Which factor will win out? Is there another factor involved that climate change could impact? Will we get more tornadoes in some areas and less in others? Will we get weaker tornadoes or stronger tornadoes? It’s very difficult to tell.

In 2007, NASA scientists used a climate model to project changes in severe storms, including tornadoes. (Remember, even though an individual tornado can’t be represented on a model, the conditions likely to cause a tornado can.) They predicted that the future will bring fewer storms overall, but that the ones that do form will be stronger. A plausible solution to the question, although not a very comforting one.

With uncertain knowledge, how should we approach this issue? Should we focus on the comforting possibility that the devastation in the United States might have nothing to do with our species’ actions? Or should we acknowledge that we might bear responsibility? Dr. Kevin Trenberth, a top climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), thinks that ignoring this possibility until it’s proven is a bad idea. “It’s irresponsible not to mention climate change,” he writes.