Tornado forecasting saved countless lives this week. Too bad Congress, including Alabama’s entire GOP delegation, voted against maintaining forecast quality

An aerial view of damaged homes in Alabama.

Buildings in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, lie in ruins on April 28, a day after a tornado demolished the city (via Reuters)

We reported in March that NOAA said GOP’s proposed satellite funding cuts could halve the accuracy of precipitation forecasts.  Michael Conathan, CAPAF’s Director of Ocean Programs, updates the story.

On Thursday, as the search for survivors continued in devastated communities across Alabama and other southern states pummeled this week by massive, terrifying tornadoes,  President Obama said “we can’t control when or where a terrible storm may strike, but we can control how we respond to it.” Unfortunately, thanks to the spending bill orchestrated by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, he couldn’t say we are doing everything in our power to protect Americans from future extreme weather events. Events that are becoming ever more frequent, as CAP’s Daniel J. Weiss and Valeri Vasquez pointed out in a report and interactive map released Friday.

The Associated Press characterized the number of fatalities from these storms –more than 340 as of Saturday — as something that “seems out of a bygone era, before Doppler radar and pinpoint satellite forecasts were around to warn communities of severe weather. Residents were told the tornadoes were coming up to 24 minutes ahead of time, but they were just too wide, too powerful and too locked onto populated areas to avoid a horrifying body count.”

It is precisely those “pinpoint satellite forecasts” that Congress, including every GOP member of Alabama’s delegation, decided were luxuries America cannot afford when it passed the continuing resolution to keep the government operating for the remainder of the fiscal year.

As we have discussed in previous posts, this action eliminated funding to replace the environmental satellites that help make our forecasts a reality. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has stated in no uncertain terms that these aging satellites will fail, and our failure to buy new ones this year will cause at least an 18 month gap in coverage.

Clearly, Congressional Republicans were more interested in protecting the $5.5 billion in subsidies and foregone royalty payments for Big Oil””which collectively reported a total of more than $30 billion in first quarter profits this week””than they were in spending the $700 million necessary to literally save the lives of their constituents.

This week’s news stories about these disasters are full of harrowing accounts of narrow escapes made possible by timely, accurate forecasting that provided nearly half an hour’s advance warning that these massive tornadoes were on the way. And still, at least 340 people have been killed and countless others injured.

“It is sobering to us to see that tornadoes in the 21st century can still cause so many deaths,” said Joshua Wurman, the president of the Center for Severe Weather Research. “We had hoped that through increased warnings, better buildings and increased public awareness, the years of these events had passed.”

We now know that the events themselves have not passed””on the contrary, it is more likely that these events will only continue to grow more intense and more frequent. Apparently, the only thing that has passed is our willingness to pay the cost of the accurate predictions that saved innumerable lives across the south earlier this week.

Michael Conathan

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21 Responses to Tornado forecasting saved countless lives this week. Too bad Congress, including Alabama’s entire GOP delegation, voted against maintaining forecast quality

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    These are the same Congressmen who kept trying to weaken drilling reviews prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill. Incredibly, Republicans still want to expedite drilling, just as the Alamaba delegation won’t back off on cutting back on tornado monitoring.

    It’s getting really strange, almost as if they were on drugs. Let’s see if the Democrats run with this as a campaign issue for a change.

  2. Steve Valk says:

    While many scientists are cautious to link increased tornado activity to climate change, USAToday — about as mainstream as it gets — is not shy about making the connection:

  3. Leif says:

    Penny wise, pound foolish.

    Both too polite.

  4. George Ennis says:

    Good luck on trying to adapt to climate change when you don’t have good meteorological data. Interesting to see how much money the federal government will spend on helping the victims rebuild and the cost of increasing NOAA’s budget.

  5. MapleLeaf says:

    I would be very careful about attributing these tornadoes to AGW.— Dr. Gavin Schmidt and some other eminent climate scientists have rightly been reluctant to make a direct connection. That is not to say that this is not part of a larger pattern. On that note, the flooding events are, and the increase in extreme precipitation events is well documented in the literature.

    Dr. Harold Brooks wrote a paper on the expected trends in severe thunderstorms in response to AGW a while ago. I’ll dig it up and post a link here.

    In my opinion, the really big story here with the tornadoes is that the GOP are planning to put people’s lives at risk by slashing funding to NOAA just so that they can make the wealthy even wealthier. any with extreme precipitation events on the rise, we now need a sophisticated, cutting edge surveillance systems, prediction and warming systems…the best that money can buy in fact.

  6. Michael T says:

    NOAA releases aerial imagery of Tuscaloosa, Ala. tornado damage

  7. sydb says:

    What we see is a natural variability which is large, but we also see a signal that is slowly adding to it. The effect of this is to make thousand year events into hundred year events and hundred year events into ten year events. In one sense, it can always be argued that any event is attributable to natural variability rather than global warming. If the variability had “gone the other way” the event would not have occured. So we can blame natural variability.

    However, this is arguing semantics. The rare events are becoming the commonplace because of global warming. It’s similar to lung cancer and smoking. It is difficult to tie any single case to smoking, but cases exploded once smoking became popular. In the 1900s cases were rare, but by the 1940s they were common. It’s no surprise that many of the same whores whoo denied the smoking link to lung cancer are now denying the link between a worsening climate and greenhouse gas pollution.

    I could always cross the road without looking, and, if I was lucky and motorists were all responsible and vigilant, I might not end up as road pizza. However, I take the time to look, and wait until I know it’s safe. I think the human race should do the same, or it will end up as road pizza too.

  8. Joan Savage says:

    The International EM-DAT data base (1900-present) shows a distinct decline in human mortality from WORLDWIDE natural disasters from 1970 onward, even while incidence of natural disasters, numbers of persons affected, and economic losses all increased.


    Note that NIMBUS weather satellite system was initiated in the mid 1960s.

    Regarding tornadoes in particular, a NYT graphic that shows a decline in tornado deaths since 1974 (They used a data set beginning in 1950).

    So, what’s the expected life of the satellites that are currently delivering data??

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    That Rightwing politicians would remain indifferent to the direct human suffering that almost certainly will be precipitated by their actions comes as no surprise to me. Not only are indifference to the misfortune of others and lack of human empathy, the greater the more distant the victims are from the politicians, ubiquitous features of the Rightwing authoritarian personality, but that type also exhibits a simmering antipathy towards the ‘Other’. This aversion to others becomes more manifest when the objects are different in race, religion, ideology etc, but exists on all levels, even towards those of one’s own nation. Generally speaking the archetypal Rightist, in my opinion, is not just indifferent to the suffering of others, but experiences a frisson of pleasure in that misfortune, just so long as he or she evades it, as that fortune is seen as a mark of superiority, either in material advantage, ‘God’s blessing’ or sheer luck (fortune smiling on the elect). Appealing to these creatures on the basis that it will save the lives of others, is, in fact, utterly self-defeating, because that is precisely why they target such social structures. Concern for the welfare of others, rather than ruthless and absolute self-interest, is, for the Right, anathema, a species of ‘socialism’ or ‘collectivism’.

  10. Michael says:

    There is good reason why scientists don’t want to make any links between global warming and tornadoes – because if anything, the number of strong tornadoes has been decreasing; i.e. global warming is reducing the strength of tornadoes, despite increases in the overall number is because of better reporting, increased population and radar (the decreasing trend is even larger than indicated because a higher population means more potential for damage, which is how tornadoes are rated; an EF0 in an open field could be an EF5 if it hit a city):

    The recent outbreaks are probably (not entirely, of course) due to La Nina*, which while weakening in the ocean, has remained at or near records for the Southern Oscillation Index (which is arguably more important since it measures the atmospheric circulation). You may also recall that 2008, at the time the worst tornado year in the past decade or more, had some bad tornado outbreaks as well, so was 1974 (last year had record low tornado activity until El Nino weakened).

    *La Nina results in an increased north-south temperature contrast across the U.S. and a stronger southwards shifted jetstream, which can intensify storms – the opposite of what is expected with global warming due to increased warming in the North.

    (as shown, it also tends to result in more rain and flooding in the central U.S. – not that I disagree that warmer temperatures and more moisture can make it worse)

  11. Glenn Picher says:

    I believe the article is wrong about the unanimity of the Alabama delegation. Democrat Terri Sewell (AL-7) voted Nay, while the rest of the delegation, all Republican, voted Yea.

  12. Leif says:

    Glenn Picher @11; “… Alabama’s entire GOP delegation…” would appear correct.

  13. Vic says:

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service (NWS) have released the following data… 

    “NOAA’s preliminary estimate is that there were 312 tornadoes during the entire outbreak from 8:00 a.m. EDT April 26 to 8:00 a.m. April 28, 2011.”

    “The largest previous number of tornadoes on record in one event occurred from April 3-4, 1974, with 148 tornadoes.”

    I never realised that “natural variation” could look so, well, unnatural.  Would a hurricane twice the the size of Katrina fall under the realm of natural variation ? 

  14. Lisa Boucher says:

    It’s often said that climate and weather are incorrectly conflated.  But it seems increasingly clear that severe weather will ironically be the phenomenon that convinces more people of the climate crisis than any other.

    With that in mind, I’m grateful for Climate Progress, which seems to be the best single source on the internet for information and news about the link between climate change and severe weather.

  15. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Lisa #13. I don’t find it ironic that it is extreme weather that convinces people that the catastrophe is upon us.

    Ordinary people, not scientists, believe what their everyday perceptions and memories tell them. In such a now fraught domain as climate science and I am writing now as one who has devoted some time to studying the denial phenomena as well as people’s beliefs and attitudes, the increasingly extreme weather and accelerated rate of disasters world wide, are our best friends.

    Now that we have extreme outbreaks of tornados in the USA, for example, you can put $ on the fact that these phenomena will cause niggling little doubts about their beliefs about it being ‘natural’, ‘the sun’, ‘an act of God’, etc etc ad finitum. They have heard of the science but have chosen, so far, to align themselves with the opposition. These disasters change the odds.

    As long as there is a continuing, even if minimal, stream of information from scientists about the root causes of global warming and its effects, these doubts about their denier and sceptical beliefs will continue to grow and thus we begin to see a phase shift.

    People are not stupid – they all have pattern making brains. They are all starting to put these patterns together right now and as the patterns become clear, they will act on them.

    Sooner or later, they will will begin to put their direct perceptions before their perceptions mediated through TV. I think this is hapening now.

    The only question for the USA is will this point of clarity be in time for you to aid in the global effort to avert this catastrophe? ME

  16. Daniela says:

    It’s interesting to look at this question as to whether tornadoes are linked to global warming and then see the government try to give up on collecting the predictive data that helps answer those questions.

  17. Lewis C says:

    Reuters now reports that the recent swarm of tornadoes killed “about 350” people, but gives no account of the number still missing. The 1925 event reportedly killed 747, so it is likely now eclipsed as a superior body-count evaluation of this event.

    Nor is there any account of the number who’ve died as a result of their injuries – despite several thousands having been injured.

    It seems plain that neither govt. nor MSM want any questions asked about the origins of this extreme event.

    Meanwhile the rains and snow-melt accumulating from the storm system are piling into the Mississippi preparing for what Masters describes as a 100-year flood, posing the question of whether this will be the event by which the river breaks through into an alternative course. The next fortnight will decide the matter.

    If it did break through, much of US trade, both import and export, would be affected, as the stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans would become too shallow for commercial traffic.


  18. MapleLeaf says:

    Re possible trends in severe weather in the US. I promised one by Brooks, but this one is perhaps more relevant–from Van Klooster and Roebber (2009, J. Climate):

    “In this work, the authors present a “perfect prog” approach to estimating the potential for surface-based convective initiation and severity based upon the large-scale variables well resolved by climate model simulations. This approach allows for the development of a stable estimation scheme that can be applied to any climate model simulation, presently and into the future. The scheme is applied for the contiguous United States using the output from the Parallel Climate Model, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change third assessment A2 (business as usual) as input. For this run, relative to interannual variability, the potential frequency of deep moist convection does not change, but the potential for severe convection is found to increase east of the Rocky Mountains and most notably in the “tornado alley” region of the U.S. Midwest. This increase in severe potential is mostly tied to increases in thermodynamic instability as a result of ongoing warm season surface warming and moistening. Finally, approaches toward improving such estimation methods are briefly discussed.”

    So there are at least three recent papers (the above, DelGenio et al. 2007 (GRL), and Trapp et al. (2007)), which suggest that the potential for severe storms will increase over the southern and southeastern portions of the US as the planet warms and atmospheric water vapour increases.

  19. Oakden Wolf says:

    Joan Savage asked:

    “So, what’s the expected life of the satellites that are currently delivering data??”

    Most of the NASA satellites are past due. Terra launched in 1999, Aqua in 2002, Aura in 2004. 10 years is a long time for satellites. The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission launched in 1998, and its replacement from NASA is the Global Precipitation Mission, scheduled for launch next year. The NPOESS Preparatory Project is scheduled for launch this year, even though there is no longer an NPOESS to prepare for; that project has a new name and DoD is out. I think the Europeans have some missions in the pipeline but I haven’t seen their status.

    General lifetimes for the current suite of geostationary weather satellites are 5-10 years.

  20. PubliusIX says:

    Is the satellite funding cut discussed in this article made by HR1? (The Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011)

  21. Chase Williamson says:

    We need a bigger budget for the weather service. Bring back 2008!!!