What Happened in Joplin?

The Joplin, Missouri, tornado of May 22, 2011, was an EF-5. Photo by Aaron Fuhrman/Flickr Editorial/Getty Images.

Seth Fletcher is a talented writer. Consider this description of the day a tornado leveled his hometown of Joplin, Missouri:

Just after 5 p.m., two storm chasers driving toward the western edge of Joplin, Missouri, spotted a translucent set of tendrils reaching down from the storm’s low black thunderhead. Almost as quickly as they formed, the tendrils disappeared. And then things took a turn. A dark blob half a mile wide congealed and dropped from the clouds.

The description proceeds from there, as the horrifying events of May 22, 2011, are painfully well captured. As the twister’s progress through Joplin is laid out, piece by piece, it becomes clear that Fletcher is an individual who loves the English language and knows how to use it. What about climatology, though? And what about logic? Does he love these just as much?

Let’s take climatology first. How rare are tornadoes in the Central Plains? Not very! Fletcher himself talks of hearing tornado sirens throughout his childhood, and unfortunately twisters have been destroying life and property as long as people have lived in that part of the world. That’s because intense clashes of air masses, cold from Canada, warm from the Gulf, take place on a near-daily basis in spring, summer, and fall (and sometimes winter). That’s the way it has been throughout the Holocene, the glorious climatic nest in which we are privileged to live.

What Fletcher particularly avoids discussing is the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientific literature show the Medieval Warm Period to have been “hotter,” to use the language of the climate change crowd, than today. That aside, not one climatologist on Earth maintains that we are as warm in the 21st century as we were during the Holocene Optimum 8,000 to 6,000 years before the present time. So, though Fletcher’s well-spun tale has the cozy feel of high-quality wool, it turns out that his narrative (lacking real anchors as it does) risks being a stylish blindfold for his readers.

More problematic still, the Holocene Interglacial is definitively cooler, with much lower sea levels, than the interglacials that came before it, including the one immediately before it: the Eemian. During the Eemian temperatures on Earth were at least 2 degrees Celsius warmer than today; sea level was about 15 feet higher.

Are we to presume that the warmer temperatures of yesteryear made for an even more dangerous atmospheric setup in Joplin than what it endures today? In other words, did the Eemian see vicious tornadoes on a more regular basis than during our own time. Simple answer: no one knows. One thing is sure, though: the lost-Eden presumption of Fletcher (and of course Bill McKibben, whom he cites as a climate authority) is a fantasy. If heat is the problem, and there’s no proof that it is, then we should be celebrating the pronounced global cooling of the last 110,000 years.

The simple truth is that the spot of land that Joplin occupies is a tornado factory, unlike almost everywhere else on Earth. Tornadoes, a commonplace in the United States, are quite rare elsewhere in the world. As for EF-5’s such as the one that destroyed so much of Joplin, they are close to non-existent outside the American heartland. They are a sad fact of life, in other words.

The slightly wistful title of Fletcher’s Popular Science article – “Did Global Warming Destroy My Hometown?” – can be answered in the negative.

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About Harold Ambler

Harold Ambler has been writing about weather and climate for more than 20 years. He started his journalism career at The New Yorker and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, The AtlanticWire, and wattsupwiththat.com, among other places. He lives in Rhode Island.
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2 Responses to What Happened in Joplin?

  1. Reblogged this on gottadobetterthanthis and commented:
    Tornadoes are nothing new. They happen every year, always have, and always will.

  2. Joplin just happened to be in the way of a “big one” on this occasion. I hate this kind of alarmism – the unusual or unprecedented suddenly becomes the “new norm”. The reverse too – the usual becomes “unprecedented”, storms, floods, melting glaciers, ice-shelf breakup, drought. Some people have conveniently short memories.

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