Tornado Casualties Could Triple by the End of the Century

A recent study published in the journal Climatic Change found that the amount of death and destruction wrought by tornadoes in the United States could triple by the end of this century—and it’s in large part our own doing. Researchers at Villanova University studying tornado risk and population growth found that human activity will likely contribute to a rise in tornado-related damages and casualties in the coming decades.

The researchers’ findings are almost common sense: As the American population grows and people build homes farther away from urban centers, tornadoes will have more things to run into, putting more people at greater risk for danger during tornado outbreaks.

It’s already possible to see the effects of population growth in the aftermath of recent tornado outbreaks. Most tornadoes tear through open land, primarily damaging farm houses and agricultural equipment. Back when most of the population was either isolated in rural areas or concentrated in city centers, it took the incredible bad luck of a significant tornado directly hitting a city in order to cause a major disaster. But as the suburbs have wildly expanded in recent decades and we've built on more and more land, we’re exposing ourselves to a risk that our parents and grandparents didn’t necessarily have to face. Nowadays, a tornado can tear through a city’s suburbs and claim many lives and thousands of homes—homes that likely didn’t exist 50 years ago.

The researchers also accounted for the fact that the frequency of tornadoes might increase over the next nine decades, but found that this increase alone doesn’t account for additional tornado-related tragedies. Talking about future tornadoes, of course, also inevitably brings up the issue of climate change. While there is significant scientific consensus on many of the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and warmer temperatures, scientists still aren’t sure how climate change would affect the frequency or intensity of tornadoes in the future.

Tornadoes require wind shear in order to form. Winds changing speed and direction with height is what causes a thunderstorm’s updraft to begin rotating, which in turn can produce tornadoes. While a warmer atmosphere would foster more intense thunderstorm activity, a uniformly warm atmosphere would probably lessen the amount of wind shear that a thunderstorm could tap into—possibly causing the number of annual tornadoes to hold steady or even drop a bit.

But while climate change’s future effects on tornadoes remain to be seen, researchers have recently noted an uptick in the frequency of tornado outbreaks, or events with many tornadoes on a single day. All of which is to say: An increase in tornado outbreaks combined with an increase in population will likely make tornado tragedies more common in the future.

Storm Leaves Homes Along Lake Erie Covered in Up To Three Feet of Ice

Houses along Lake Erie's shoreline were pummeled with sheets of icy water during a storm last week.
Houses along Lake Erie's shoreline were pummeled with sheets of icy water during a storm last week.
John Normile/Getty Images

This past weekend, lakeside residents of Hamburg, New York, awoke to find their neighborhood transformed into a full-scale replica of Frozen’s ice-covered kingdom, Arendelle.

According to CNN, gale force winds produced giant waves that sprayed the houses along Lake Erie with sheets of water for two days straight, covering them in layers of ice up to three feet thick.

“It looks fake, it looks surreal,” Hamburg resident Ed Mis told CNN. “It’s dark on the inside of my house. It can be a little eerie, a little frightening.”

While the homeowners are anxious for the ice to melt, they’re also concerned about what could happen when it does.

“We’re worried about the integrity, of structure failure when it starts to melt, because of the weight on the roof,” Mis said.

He added that this is the worst ice coating he’s seen since he moved to the area eight years ago—but it’s not because they’ve had a particularly harsh winter. In fact, just the opposite is true. According to The Detroit News, warm winter temperatures have caused ice cover on the Great Lakes to drop from 67 percent in 2019 to less than 20 percent this year.

“Lake Erie typically has significant ice cover by this time of the year, and that protects the shoreline from these battering storms,” The Weather Channel’s winter weather expert Tom Niziol explained in a video.

The phenomenon has created another unforeseen issue for Hamburg’s coast, too: Tourism. The local police department posted a message on Facebook on Sunday, March 1, asking people to keep off both the “extremely unsafe and unstable” ice and people's private property.

[h/t CNN]

What is Lake-Effect Snow?

Tainar/iStock via Getty Images
Tainar/iStock via Getty Images

As you probably guessed, you need a lake to experience lake-effect snow. The primary factor in creating lake-effect snow is a temperature difference between the lake and the air above it. Because water has a high specific heat, it warms and cools much more slowly than the air around it. All summer, the sun heats the lake, which stays warm deep into autumn. When air temperatures dip, we get the necessary temperature difference for lake-effect snow.

As the cool air passes over the lake, moisture from the water evaporates and the air directly above the surface heats up. This warm, wet air rises and condenses, quickly forming heavy clouds. The rate of change in temperature as you move up through the air is known as the "lapse rate"; the greater the lapse rate, the more unstable a system is—and the more prone it is to create weather events.

Encountering the shore only exacerbates the situation. Increased friction causes the wind to slow down and clouds to "pile up" while hills and variable topography push air up even more dramatically, causing more cooling and more condensation.

The other major factors that determine the particulars of a lake-effect snowstorm are the orientation of the wind and the specific lake. Winds blowing along the length of a lake create greater "fetch," the area of water over which the wind blows, and thus more extreme storms like the one currently pummeling the Buffalo area. The constraints of the lake itself create stark boundaries between heavy snow and just a few flurries and literal walls of snow that advance onto the shore. The southern and eastern shores of the Great Lakes are considered "snow belts" because, with winds prevailing from the northwest, these areas tend to get hit the hardest.

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