Hotter Earth Cooks Up More Thunderstorms

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If you follow climate science at all, you’ve probably heard that a warming world is likely to generate more nasty weather and a lot more weather extremes, kind of like the extreme droughts and then torrential flooding that Colorado, New Mexico and other western states have experienced. Well that also goes for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, according to a new study by researchers who used a new computer simulation to test the conditions which generate tornadoes.

Their results suggests that we and our progeny are in for some pretty terrible twisters in coming decades — a lot like those that ripped up the U.S. in 2012. Specifically, by the year 2070 severe thunderstorms in the eastern United States could rise by 40 percent, say the researchers. Ouch.

Hit or Miss? Extreme Weather vs. Climate Change

The key to the work is understanding how moist low-level air convects upwards and carries water vapor high into the atmosphere to generate a storm. Previous models suggested that as the planet warms some aspects of how this convection works would be enhanced, while others stunted. So it was a toss up whether a warmer planet would generate more and more dangerous thunderstorms and tornadoes. But Stanford University researcher Noah Diffenbaugh and his colleagues found that this cancelling effect was only true sometimes, and that there is an overall increase in storms on a hotter Earth. They have published their findings in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

So what do we do about it? It turns out that despite the long history of dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we can slow down the warming and give our civilization and the ecosystems we depend on more time to adapt and survive, according to some earlier studies. All we have to do is get a grip on the greenhouse gas emissions and reverse the current trend, which is still very much headed in the wrong direction. So it’s not too late to do something.

Image: Tornado over Oklahoma. Photograph by Greg Thompson / UCAR

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