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A look at weather extremes and the big-picture climate connections.

Plains Blizzard Winds Down; Philippines Storm Becomes Deadliest of 2011

A deadly blizzard is winding down today in the Plains states after dropping up to two feet of snow, with drifts several feet higher than that, in portions of New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas. Drought-busting precipitation fell in Texas and Oklahoma, two states that have been stricken with the worst one-year drought on record.

According to the National Weather Service, the storm is being blamed for at least six deaths, and motorists had to be rescued from their cars in the Texas panhandle after they became stuck in the wind-driven snow.

The Weather Channel has an online gallery that shows just what a wind-driven snowstorm in this part of the country looks like (hint: snow drifts upwards of 10 feet tall). You can graphically explore snow and wind reports by going to this handy National Weather Service site. Some reported snow totals include 12 inches in Scott City, Kansas, 15 inches in Springfield, Colorado, and two feet in Pietown, New Mexico (yes, that is a real town).

Tropical Storm Washi Becomes 2011's Deadliest Storm

Track and satellite-generated rainfall estimates for Tropical Storm Washi. Credit: NASA.

Tropical Storm Washi, which caused flash flooding on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines over the weekend, has become the deadliest weather event of 2011, with a death toll at 1,000 and rising, according to news reports. As I wrote yesterday, although the Philippines are frequently struck by tropical storms and hurricanes (known as typhoons there), Mindanao is far enough south to escape most of the destructive weather. Therefore, people there were caught off guard when Washi crossed the island. Fed by unusually warm sea surface temperatures, Washi caused up to 100 hours of heavy rainfall in some areas, leading to the deadly floods.

According to an article in the Daily Mail newspaper, Philipino President Benigno Aquino III said the government will investigate why so many people died despite the advanced warning of the storm's path. "I do not accept that everything had been done. I know that we can do more. We must determine what really happened," Aquino said.

NOAA Releases Assessment of April Tornado Outbreak

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a service assessment of the historic tornado outbreak that occurred on April 25-28, 2011, during which time more than 200 tornadoes touched down in five southeastern states. During the peak of the outbreak on April 27, 316 people lost their lives, primarily in Alabama (see our feature: Top 10 Hardest Hit States of 2011).

Satellite image showing tornado damage in Tuscaloosa, Alabama from the April 25-28 2011 outbreak.

The assessment contains lessons both for communicating severe weather warnings, as well as climate science. One of the more interesting findings is that in many cases, after learning of a tornado warning from one source, people looked to confirm the threat for themselves rather than immediately taking shelter. The most effective method of confirming the threat came from actually seeing a tornado, but by that point most people were already in grave danger. The report states:

While warnings often put people on alert and motivated them to obtain more information, it was seeing the tornado or its effects that provided the impetus to seek shelter. It is important to note that visual confirmation of large tornadoes was particularly difficult in this event. Most people do not know what a large tornado looks like (i.e., a large, dark, low-hanging cloud) and were not expecting what they actually saw. People reported that they spent several minutes looking directly at the tornado before they realized what it was. In many cases, it was not until people saw debris flying that they recognized the threat. This fact, coupled with the speed of the storms, meant many people barely made it to shelters or did not make it to safety.

For example, despite hearing warnings all day, one man stated he did not take action until he saw the tornado approaching. At that point, he didn’t have time to run to a nearby store, so he crawled into the bathtub. Another family reported that they had been monitoring television and radio as well as looking outside when they noticed a “large dark storm cloud” approaching. By the time they realized that the cloud was a tornado, the family barely made it to their storm shelter. As they pulled the door shut, they heard debris pounding against it.

Why do I mention these findings in the context of climate change, when tornadoes are a small-scale weather phenomena? Well, if people don't even trust a tornado warning, and instead must see a twister barelling towards them before taking action to save their lives, then it's going to be even more difficult than I thought to focus attention on a threat that is unfolding far more slowly, but which requires immediate action in order to forestall the worst consequences. The climate change warning sirens are going off, but many people aren't taking them seriously.

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