When I was young, I thought every cloud in the summer time meant a thunderstorm, and every thunderstorm meant a tornado or some other life-changing natural disaster complete with hail, fire and flying cows. Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot in twenty-two years.
Yet many myths still exist about tornados, myths that are exploited by a media constantly seeking the sensationalism that bolsters ratings. Not that I’m bitter. But the funny thing about statistics is that they really do lie. The same numbers in different hands can sing a different tune.
General thunderstorms, while capable of hail, wind, lightning, and severe damage (my childhood was plagued by images of my house bursting into a ball of flame as lightning surged through the electrical wiring behind the walls), do not produce the severe tornados seen in Twister. Tornados require specific conditions, conditions that are still, even in this modern era of scientific discovery, theory. What we do know is that the types of thunderstorms that do produce strong tornados, supercells, contain a certain ingredient missing in general thunderstorms. This ingredient? Rotation. Supercells are complicated structures, but the heart of tornado formation is located in an area called the mesocyclone, a rotating mass of downdrafts and updrafts that can spawn a fleet of vortexes. Once again, while the conditions for tornado formation are science, the process itself remains, for the most part, theory. And sometimes, summer thunderstorms are just thunderstorms.
But sometimes, summer thunderstorms are more than just thunderstorms. What are the recent trends in tornado data, and why the media sensationalism? Global warming, the newborn baby of media obsession, has supposed consequences across the meteorological board. Tornados are no exception. As I mentioned before, however, statistics are only as accurate as the honesty of the parties using them. Statistics are only numbers; they only have meaning in their application. And sadly, they are often applied falsely, to support a viewpoint contradictory to the truth of the data.
My childhood self, raised in New Hampshire, may not be happy with my adult self here, but statistically, tornados are more wide-spread than commonly believed. While “tornado alley,” the states in the Midwest and the Southwest most often associated with the destructive storms, are plagued with the most annual storms, the rest of the United States is not necessarily safe. Texas averages 139 storms a year, but Texas is a big state. Per 10,000 square miles, Texas averages 5.2 a year, a number dwarfed by Florida and West Virginia, and rather similar to the amount of storms found annually in Maryland. Even the New England states average from .6 to 3.6 tornados a year per 10,000 square miles. These statistics serve to equalize the comparisons between states, for Texas is in no way comparable in size to Massachusetts. While three tornados a year is insignificant when contrasted to 139 storms, the potential for risk is better evaluated when 3.6 storms are contrasted with 5.2 tornados per 10,000 square miles. The severest tornados require flat land, void of mountainous terrain and heavily-forested areas; the storms in New England may never achieve the destructive capabilities of the storms in the Midwest, but they still exist.
Even so, the wide-spread existence of tornados across the country is no recent trend. Tornados have existed anywhere and everywhere supercells and other sever thunderstorms develop. Global warming is merely a scapegoat for the limitations of old technology. The graphs used by the media, the graphs used to prove the existence of global warming and other man-made weather alterations, show a consistent increase in the amount of tornados per year in the United States, and the amount of fatalities attributed to these storms. However, the only real change has been man’s ability to accurately calculate and classify these storms. At first, it appears that the amount of annual storms has doubled in the last fifty years (from 500 to 1,000). But an adjusted regression, one that takes into account the short-comings of technology in earlier decades, shows numbers ranging anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 tornados a year, fluctuating every few years, with spikes and lulls that hint at a naturally-occuring weather pattern. The amount of fatalities attributed to these storms also fluctuates from year to year. Not surprisingly, in recent years the amount of fatalities has decreased in accordance with more advanced tornado warning systems. Once again, statistics are easily taken out of context, used to prove causation where only correlation exists. For example, the sharp spike in tornado fatalities near the end of the 1920s probably has more to do with the Great Depression and the number of Midwest families living without adequate (or any) housing than with an increase in tornado activity.
Tornado data, like any statistical findings, are easy victims to media sensationalism. They can be warped, twisted and manipulated into proving anything imaginable. The recent debate over global warming has caused an increase in focus on weather data, and sadly, with the false attributions of weather events to global warming, the real stories behind the numbers are lost. Modern technology is simply that, modern, and we are only now beginning to piece together the history of global climate; we are merely chipping away at the very tip of the iceberg of the patterns and trends apparent throughout history that will one day be able to predict our future. The media should not aim to incite public panic; it should aim to honestly educate. There should be no agenda, no campaign to prove global warming true through fear when concrete fact is unavailable.
When I was young, I was afraid of any cloudy summer day, but through education I have learned the difference between danger and the absence of danger, and between the natural and the unnatural.