Climate Change Destruction in Joplin, MO after the recent mega-tornado that swept through the city of 50,000.

Published on May 24th, 2011 | by Zachary Shahan


Are Tornadoes & Climate Change Linked?

Destruction in Joplin, MO after the recent mega-tornado that swept through the city of 50,000.

This is a question that has definitely popped into my mind. And, if you are at all familiar with the fact that climate change is not just about sea levels or heat but is also causing (and going to cause more) much more extreme weather or “global weirding” as some put it, you are probably curious as well.

Well, it is clear that the number of recorded tornadoes have increased significantly in recent years, but it is still hard to determine if that is linked to global climate change or simply due to better weather-tracking technology.

As Alok Jha of the Guardian puts it: “As the city of Joplin deals with the devastation from Sunday’s tornado, some people might wonder whether these extreme weather events are getting more common because of climate change. The answer is that no one really knows.”

Of course, it is difficult (or impossible) to scientifically link any single extreme weather event to global warming. However, linking increases in weather events (like hurricanes) can be done. Unlike hurricanes, though, there isn’t the depth of scientific research on tornadoes needed to evaluate a potential link.

Recorded Tornadoes Increasing, but Is that Linked to Global Warming?

“If you look at the past 60 years of data, the number of tornadoes is increasing significantly, but it’s agreed upon by the tornado community that it’s not a real increase,” Grady Dixon, assistant professor of meteorology and climatology at Mississippi State University, told AFP. ”It’s having to do with better (weather tracking) technology, more population, the fact that the population is better educated and more aware. So we’re seeing them more often.”

Now, I won’t doubt that this is all part of the issue. But whether or not it is the whole issue seems up for debate (or, rather, unknown).

Global Warming Factors that May Cause More Tornadoes

“Another broader factor that may be aiding and abetting the destructive weather is a very warm Gulf of Mexico, where sea surface temperatures have been between 1 and 2.5°C above average for this time of year,” Andrew Freedman of Climate Central wrote at the end of April. “This is important because it means there is more moisture flowing northward off the Gulf, and a humid environment is necessary for severe thunderstorms to form.”

What is causing warmer water in the Gulf and all around the world? Global warming, of course. It is one of the key concerns of global warming, itself.

Furthermore, global warming results in more storms, and especially stronger storms. We know that. With more and stronger storms come more tornadoes. Simple.

Nonetheless, there is still scientific uncertainty about the link between tornadoes and global warming. So, hold off on any claims that the tornadoes are related to global warming until the science confirms it….

Here’s more from Freedman to wrap-up/summarize (emphasis mine):

As for global warming, this is an active area of scientific research, with some conflicting projections so far about whether a warming atmosphere will make it more or less likely that tornadoes will form. Since more moisture gets added to the atmosphere as the climate warms, additional water vapor may help severe thunderstorms and tornadoes to form. On the other hand, wind shear is expected to decline due to climate change, which would argue against an increase in tornado numbers.

According to some studies, though, by the end of the present century, the added water vapor will be enough to overcome the lower wind shear, and create more opportunities for severe thunderstorms to form.

Tornadoes are a bigger wild card for climate scientists than other types of extreme weather and climate events, such as heat waves and flooding. (Studies have consistently found that both of these hazards will occur more frequently and severely as the world warms.)

Photo via el clinto

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About the Author

is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy for the past four years or so. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he's the Network Manager for their parent organization – Important Media – and he's the Owner/Founder of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to and click on the relevant buttons.

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  • Jean Mapplebeck

      Everything that happened in past  this planet can repeat itself . Life is a continual renewal  What people do with it is rush it along ,

  • Ken Sawyer

    Good discussion but you are missing the fact that burning fossil fuels is adding a tremendous amount of warm water vapor to the atmosphere (as well as CO2) which obviously should lead to greater storm potential.  As Dr. Mayewski of the Climate Change Institute says, “Expect warmer, wetter, and wilder” and that is what we are getting.  So now we need to get serious about slowing down global warming or we can expect more of the same.  Ken Sawyer, Wilton, ME 

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Ken. I thought I mentioned it above, but maybe it is too brief and accidentally hidden in other language or a link.

      Thanks for the extra comment.

  • Dragontide

    I think the connection is obvious.  To the south we have a warmer than normal gulf. In the Arctic we have excessive ice melt. Water absorbs much more heat than ice. That extra heat in the Arctic, pushes the cold, polar air farther south. (because it has nowhere else to go) When the warm, meets the cold…BOOM. 

    • Anonymous

      I do as well. Thanks for the extra thought & perspective :D

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