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Why it feels like tornadoes are becoming more common, according to an expert

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last night tornadoes ripped through the plains states again. A huge funnel killed one person and injured more and destroyed dozens of homes in Barnsdall, Okla., just over a week after another deadly tornado took out large swaths of Sulphur, Okla.'s, downtown, not to mention destructive storms over the last month in Nebraska, Ohio, Louisiana and more. So are tornadoes getting worse, or does it just seem that way? I put that question to Stephen Strader, a meteorologist, hazards geographer and professor at Villanova University. And he said one element here is perception.

STEPHEN STRADER: In terms of weak tornadoes, the ones that last a few seconds, maybe some things have changed the game - is what I like to say - is we're all walking around with very good phones that have cameras in them that we can take a picture. And it makes it to social media, and that makes it into the database. So we are seeing more weak tornadoes. But when you take away those weak, short-lived events that don't cause much damage, we really haven't seen much of a change in terms of wind tornadoes and how many occur in a given year.

SHAPIRO: I know that, broadly speaking, climate change will lead to more extreme weather events, from fires and floods to heat waves and hurricanes. But as I understand it, we cannot make as direct a correlation between climate change and tornadoes. Based on your research, what kind of a role do you think climate change plays with tornadoes?

STRADER: Yeah. So we've seen some subtle changes that have gone on in past events with tornadoes and looking at their timing and seasonal timing and their frequency. And then we have plenty of researchers out there that are looking at the future of tornadoes, but more importantly, they're looking at the future of all severe weather, which would be hail, wind and tornadoes. And right now our best guess is that we are going to see increases in the environments that support these severe weather events, including tornadoes.

We're - potentially in the future, the next couple of decades, we would see more tornado events occurring in early spring or late winter but also just the greater number of days when we have the environment supporting severe weather. So the reality is that we should see increases in the near future even though we haven't been able to detect much of a change in current-day or past studies.

SHAPIRO: Can you explain why it's harder to tease out the connection between tornadoes and climate change than it is other kinds of severe weather and climate change?

STRADER: A lot of it has to do with spatial scale. If you think of a hurricane, a hurricane is much larger. Our models can resolve that. They're much better models that can get down to the granularity of a hurricane. But tornadoes occur on very, very small, spatial scales. I mean, if you look at some of the damage from last night's event in Oklahoma and Kansas and all the places impacted over the last few weeks, the difference between having your house completely destroyed versus maybe a few shingles is a hundred yards or so.

SHAPIRO: Right.

STRADER: And our models just don't capture that yet, but they're getting there. As computational and computer models are getting better and our understanding of the science is improving, we're getting closer and closer to being able to see the storms that produce the severe weather. And hopefully in the future, we'll be able to actually see the ingredients that make up the tornadoes themselves within our models. We're not there yet, but we're hopefully going to get there.

SHAPIRO: Well, what are you going to be looking for this summer?

STRADER: I think that my big issue is if we woke up tomorrow in a world where climate change didn't exist, we have another sort of head to the monster here. I always call it a two-headed monster or a dragon, where the climate change is one of the threats. But on the other side, on the other head of the monster is our society. We are growing at record paces. There's more things in the path of these tornadoes. In fact, if you look at some of the places that were exposed to severe weather last night - you know, the southern suburbs of Oklahoma City are a great example of how those cities are growing and expanding and creating more targets for tornadoes and hail...

SHAPIRO: But not long ago...

STRADER: ...And all these events.

SHAPIRO: ...They would have been farms or prairies.

STRADER: Exactly. So there's a two-sided - you know, it's two sides to the same coin. Climate change is ultimately going to make our severe thunderstorm and severe weather season worse. But it also - we serve a role in that, too, in thinking about where and how we build our cities. And there's just more things to hit, which means more potential disasters.

SHAPIRO: That's professor Stephen Strader of Villanova University. Thanks a lot.

STRADER: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "SOUR SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.