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.

Whiten Your Teeth From Home for $40 With This Motorized Toothbrush

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This smart toothbrush can actually tell you how long to keep the brush in one place to get the most thorough cleaning—and that’s just one of the ways it can remove more plaque than an average toothbrush. The brush also features multiple modes that can whiten teeth, adjust for sensitive teeth, and massage your gums for better blood flow.

As you’d expect from any smart device, modern technology doesn’t stop at functionality. The design of the AquaSonic Black Series is sleek enough to seamlessly fit in with a modern aesthetic, and the charging base is cordless so it’s easy to bring on the go. The current deal even includes a travel case and eight Dupont replacement heads.

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7 Facts About the Hurricane Highway

Hurricane Earl (top) and Hurricane Fiona (bottom) pummel the U.S. coast and Caribbean islands.
Hurricane Earl (top) and Hurricane Fiona (bottom) pummel the U.S. coast and Caribbean islands.
NOAA/NASA GOES Project // Public Domain

Autumn is the peak of hurricane season, also known as Cape Verde season, after the islands where the so-called "hurricane highway" originates. Here are seven facts about this awesome—and sometimes deadly—weather phenomenon.

1. The hurricane highway begins near the African coast.

The Cape Verde Islands, located off the northwest coast of Africa, are where the hurricane highway starts. Thunderstorms destined to become hurricanes often form into a tropical depression near the islands, slowly organizing and strengthening over the following week as the system moves toward the Caribbean. These storms have a long time to get their act together, but they also have to cover a lot of distance without losing their power to reach the East Coast as a hurricane. Some storms are able to thrive with little wind shear, ample warm water, and moist air, while others starve and dissipate if they encounter cooler waters and strong winds, or ingest dry, dusty air blowing off the Sahara Desert.

2. An easterly jet stream gives rise to the hurricane highway.

It’s hard to imagine from North America that a couple of thunderstorms on another continent thousands of miles away can swirl up into a monstrous storm, but it happens almost every year. The extreme temperature gradient between the blistering heat of the Sahara Desert and the more temperate climate of the savanna to its south creates an easterly jet stream that triggers clusters of showers and thunderstorms. These clouds then move from east to west, emerging off the western African coast near the Cape Verde Islands. Every year, the right conditions turn a handful of these localized storms into tropical storms that make their way across the Atlantic.

3. The biggest hurricanes start with the smallest storms on the hurricane highway.

Infrared image of Hurricane Andrew
Hurricane Andrew was a Category 5 hurricane when it made landfall in Homestead, Florida.
Xanxz/NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons—these are all names for the same force of nature, like Hurricane Andrew, which hit the East Coast in 1992. Cyclones like Andrew don’t just form out of thin air. All tropical cyclones require a relatively tiny “nucleus” of thunderstorms in order to develop. When the air and water temperatures are right, these groups of thunderstorms sometimes spin up into a fierce low-pressure system capable of causing a lot of damage. We see lots of these seedling thunderstorms over the ocean every year, but only a small number of them become hurricanes.

4. Hurricanes form in different places in different months.

Where a tropical storm or hurricane begins its trip across the ocean depends on what time of the year it forms. Storms that form early in the season usually get their start from thunderstorms or cold fronts that stall over the water very close to land; almost all of the storms that form in the Atlantic in June come to life within a few hundred miles of land. When we reach the peak of hurricane season, though, they start to form farther and farther out in the ocean—all the way out to the shores of Africa.

5. Fall is the peak of hurricane season on the hurricane highway.

Hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean runs from June 1 through November 30. Storms are most common during that six-month stretch of the year, but sometimes they can form earlier or later too. That said, the period between the middle of August and the middle of October is typically the climatological peak of the season. That’s because, as the ocean water gets warmer, the atmosphere becomes conducive to vigorous storms, increasing the risk for hurricanes and tropical storms.

6. Cape Verde hurricanes can easily land in the record books.

Hurricane tracks over time

Tropical waves traveling west from the coast of Africa in the middle of the summer are the culprits behind some of the worst hurricanes we’ve experienced in the United States. For example, on August 8, 2005, a small tropical wave emerged off the coast of Africa, soon becoming Tropical Depression 10. That depression would fall apart a few days later, but its remnants kept moving toward the U.S., redeveloping into a new tropical depression over the Bahamas on August 23. That new tropical depression became Hurricane Katrina, the costliest hurricane to ever strike the United States.

It’s a similar story for many—but not all—major hurricanes in recent history. Hurricanes Andrew, Dennis, Ivan, Isabel, and Ike were all Cape Verde–type storms that sprang to life thousands of miles away from where they would ultimately wreak havoc.

7. Strong hurricanes can still form in other places in autumn.

While the far eastern part of the Atlantic Ocean is a hotbed of activity this time of the year, it’s not the only place you need to watch if you live near the coast. Storms that form close to land can quickly spin themselves into catastrophe. Hurricane Sandy formed just south of Jamaica and hit New Jersey in a matter of days in 2012. A tropical depression that developed east of Florida on September 18, 2005, exploded into Hurricane Rita just three days later, with 180 mph winds—the most intense storm ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meteorologists are currently predicting an above-average hurricane season in 2020. It may be worth preparing: NOAA suggests gathering a few key disaster supplies to have on hand, getting an insurance check-up, and locating the safest high ground.