Something Strange Is Happening in the U.S.: Tornado Alley Is Getting Bigger and Experts Don’t Know Why

Tornadoes are growing in number. They're concentrated over fewer days and expanding, affecting larger areas.

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Barnsdall used to be a picturesque small town of about 1,000 people, a 40-minute drive away from Tulsa, Oklahoma. On May 2, 2024, however, a tornado turned it into a massive landfill. Just days earlier, in late April, other tornadoes had done the same to Sulphur and Holdenville.

Tornado season was back, disrupting the daily lives of millions of people. It was business as usual, or not. Although dozens of American states are accustomed to tornadoes, something has changed this time.

What’s going on? Tornadoes have increased in number in recent years–about 500 in the last three years compared to an average of 337 between 1991 and 2000. However, two concerning trends have recently emerged. First, tornadoes are concentrating over fewer days, and second, they’re affecting more regions in the country.

As Vox reported, experts are unsure why these changes are happening and whether they're related to climate change.

A global trend. Extreme weather events are a growing global trend. In this regard, data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) shows a significant increase in “weather-related disasters” since the 1970s.

What’s more, the frequency of these disasters has increased fivefold over the past five decades. According to the WMO report, there were 1,400 reported disasters in the 1980s. This includes extreme weather, climate, and water-related hazards. In the 1990s, the reported disasters increased to 2,200. They increased to 3,500 in the first decade of the 21st century, and to close to 3,200 between 2010 and 2019.

One question arises: Why do these events occur in some places and not in others?

We don’t know the answer to this question. According to Vox, researchers have some ideas about why tornadoes are concentrating over a fewer amount of days and changing locations. However, there are still many unsolved mysteries.

For example, experts know that tornado concentrations are related to atmospheric conditions, specifically a greater “prevalence of low-pressure systems, warm moist environments, and high wind shear.”

It’s relatively easy to connect all this to an increasingly energetic atmosphere. A Nature Climate Change paper claims, for example, that over the past 20 years, the Gulf Stream has warmed faster than the global ocean as a whole and moved offshore. However, it’s difficult to draw similar conclusions with the current models.

We’re making progress, but not enough. Back in March, a team of Spanish researchers linked hailstorms to climate change in a very imaginative way: using numerical simulations. They ran several simulations and found that hail became increasingly likely in climate change scenarios. However, there’s still more work to be done.

However, this isn't the most important thing. Knowing for sure whether this change in tornadoes is a consequence of climate change could help experts improve their understanding of future changes. What’s important, however, is that it’s happening. In the U.S., this means that many people will be at risk, and a lot of infrastructure could suffer significant damage.

It’s time to prepare, not only for increasingly frequent and intense tornadoes but also for all the climate changes that lie ahead, which will definitely not be insignificant.

Image | Greg Johnson via Unsplash

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