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Nation/World

May 22, 2013

More tornadoes from global warming? Nobody knows

NORMAN — A deadly tornado hit suburban Oklahoma City on Monday. A quick look at some basic facts:

Q: Is global warming to blame?

A: You can’t blame a single weather event on global warming. In any case, scientists just don’t know whether there will be more or fewer twisters as global warming increases. Tornadoes arise from very local conditions, and so they’re not influenced by climate change as much as larger weather systems like hurricanes and nor’easters. They’re not easy to incorporate in the large computer simulations scientists use to gauge the impact of global warming.

And when scientists ponder the key weather ingredients that lead to twisters, there’s still no clear answer about whether to expect more or fewer twisters. Some scientists theorize that the jet stream is changing because sea ice in the Arctic is shrinking. And the jet stream pattern drives weather in the Northern Hemisphere.

Q: How does this tornado season stack up against previous ones?

A: The season got off to a quiet start this year. Typically, there are more during spring, and the numbers dwindle in the worst heat of the summer. An unusually cool spring kept the funnel clouds at bay until mid-May this year. The last two seasons illustrate the extremes in tornado activity. In 2011, the United States saw its second-deadliest tornado season. Last year, it was busy in April but there were few twisters after that.

Q: What happened in Oklahoma?

A: The tornado destroyed two elementary schools and flattened neighborhoods with winds estimated between 200 and 210 mph. The National Weather Service on Tuesday gave the twister a top-of-the-scale ranking of EF5. The tornado at some points was 1.3 miles wide, and its path went on for 17 miles and 40 minutes.

Q: How did it form?

A: Like the most destructive and deadly tornadoes, this one came from a rotating thunderstorm. The thunderstorm developed in an area where warm moist air rose into cooler air. Winds in the area caused the storm to rotate, and that rotation promoted the development of a tornado.

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