by Rob Morris
Apr 05, 2012
Is the Sky Falling?
Tornadoes, hail, drought and flooding…Moore Braces for Weather Extremes
By Rob Morris
“Get ready for unprecedented extreme weather.”
That was the warning heard last fall from the world’s top climate scientists and disaster experts as they warned political leaders to prepare now for storms, floods, heat waves and droughts.
Gary McManus, climatologist at the National Weather Center in Norman, agrees that things are looking unstable for areas like Cleveland County and Moore.
“We can expect the unexpected over the next couple of decades,” McManus said.
But he also points out that a lot of that instability is just part of life in Oklahoma.
“Most of that stuff (extreme weather like flooding, drought, blizzards and ice storms) is just attributable to the natural variability of our climate, especially here in the Great Plains where Oklahoma is situated,” he said. “We have periods like this where we go from extreme drought to extreme wetness.”
You won’t get any argument about weather instability from local residents or forecasters.
“Two-thousand-eleven was crazy,” says KFOR meteorologist Emily Sutton, “We had an EF5, and those are rare. We had the largest November tornado outbreak, and that day was a perfect example of just how crazy Oklahoma can be. We had the large tornado, baseball-sized hail, flooding and an earthquake all in 24-hours.”
Or, as McManus puts it, “Crazy is normal in Oklahoma.”
Moore certainly has seen its share of deadly weather over the past 15 years. The violent May 3, 1999, tornado was a EF5 monster that ripped through the city on a path from Chickasha to Midwest City. The Country Place and Briarhollow subdivisions were among the hardest hit areas, with some homes being torn completely off their foundations. Overall, 36 people were killed by the storm, which also caused more than $1.1 billion in damage.
The city was hit again on May 8, 2003. This time the twister was rated as an EF3. It hit near 12th Street and severely damaged or destroyed a number of businesses. Luckily, no deaths were reported this time.
The National Weather Service reported 119 tornadoes in Oklahoma in 2011. That’s the largest number of twisters in the state since 1957. While some point to that as clear evidence the weather is getting more and more extreme, those who make a living watching the skies say, “Not so fast.”
KWTV meteorologist Nick Bender says people are forgetting that changes in technology and population are making tornadoes easier to report.
“Technology has improved by leaps and bounds over the past 10 to 20 years or so,” Bender said. “We’re able to track and measure storms in ways we’ve never been able to do before. We can see and document them with much great accuracy.”
McManus said, “We didn’t have NEXRAD radars until recently. That allows us to pinpoint possible tornadoes and send out search teams to survey the damage. We also didn’t have every other person and their grandmother out there with video cameras chasing and spotting tornadoes. So it’s actually hard to tell if tornadoes have increased or if we’re just getting better at spotting them.”
Everyone involved in studying the weather agrees that as the population spreads across the landscape, it’s becoming much easier for twisters to be spotted as they churn up the landscape across what used to be empty prairies, pastures and farmland.
But it’s not just severe weather that has the attention of many Oklahomans. Residents look at the recent severe drought along with other weather trends like the record-setting snowstorms of 2010 and 2011 and wonder if the climate is getting out of control.
But often overlooked: increase in dangerous and costly ice storms.
“Over the last 10 to 12 years is that we’ve been in the uptick for severe ice storms. We’ve had about 9 to 12 of those, and all together, those have caused about $2 billion in damages,” McManus said.
In spite of that increase, McManus says the best research being done does show that overall temperatures around the world are increasing. He adds that the increase brings with it a growing chance of extreme precipitation.
“The atmosphere is warming. That’s a statement of fact,” he said. “And as it warms, it can hold more water vapor. So when it does rain, it has more water vapor to use and can be more intense.”
While there’s no debating a rise in the planet’s temperatures over the past 30 years, McManus says there are dissenting opinions on whether man is the primary cause of that warming.
“The current changes really do follow the changes in the amount of greenhouse gases,” he said. “But there are always cycles in the climate and there are always changes in the climate. We’ve had worse droughts, maybe not as intense for a one-year period, but worse over a long period of time.”
KOCO meteorologist Damon Lane says he believes people are also just paying closer attention to the weather these days.
“Obviously the technology we have now, compared to what we had 10 or 15 years ag,o is so much better, and we probably wouldn’t have noted a lot of these extremes. We just would’ve said, ‘Oh, it’s really warm’ or ‘It’s really cold.’ I think people probably weren’t thinking much about it 15 years ago and now it’s such a hot topic,” Lane said.
As for the future, McManus says while it’s very difficult to say exactly what we’re going to see, he does expect the temperatures to continue to rise for the next century and bring with it more extreme precipitation events.
But he doesn’t think the sky is falling, no matter what Hollywood suggests about this year.
“Well, the Mayans said the world’s going to end in 2012, but nothing like that’s going to happen unless we have an asteroid hit,” McManus said. “But we have Bruce Willis standing by to take care of situations like that.”