The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

June 5, 2011

Experts: Strange weather largely cyclical, not a trend

By Kelly Kazek
kelly@athensnews-courier.com

— People in the South have long been known to talk about the weather as a casual greeting or icebreaker but since last summer, when the temperature climbed to 106 degrees, weather is serious business.

After the record-breaking temperatures of 2010, Limestone County residents experienced the first white Christmas in 21 years, followed by a debilitating snowstorm in January. But spring’s weather has sparked the most discussions, with the April 27 tornado outbreak smashing records.

And weather hasn’t only been a phenomenon here: record-breaking blizzards in the northeast in winter, tornado outbreaks in Joplin, Mo., and unusual occurrences of tornadoes in California and Massachusetts. In July 2010, a world record-setting hailstone — 8 inches in diameter and 1.94 pounds — fell on Vivian, S.D.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. has sustained 99 weather-related disasters over the past 31 years in which overall costs reached or exceeded $1 billion, with a total of those events reaching $725 billion. The April 27 tornado outbreak is expected to cost Alabama about $4 billion.

Is climate change occurring?

Many people are asking, “Is weather becoming more severe?” Are the extreme conditions a trend expected to last, or are they part of normal cyclical weather patterns?

Chris Darden, head meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Huntsville, believes the extreme weather the area has experienced in the past year is the result of typical cycles that may be impacted by the El Nino, La Nina phenomenon.

El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, is a climate pattern that occurs about every five years across the tropical Pacific Ocean. A warming in the temperature of the surface of the ocean is known as El Niño, while a cooling is called La Niña.

Darden, however, said scientists disagree.

“The jury’s still out,” he said. “Some researchers feel that El Niño, La Niña have something to do with the increased severity of weather. We experienced El Niño last year, which changed over to La Niña over the winter and into this year.”

There is evidence, though, that the recent severe weather is cyclical.

“A lot of people who do this research think the severe weather outbreaks, not just here but across the country, is part of a multi-detailed cycle,” Darden said. “The last big tornado outbreak was in 1974, with quite a few weather events preceding it in the early 1970s. If you do the numbers, it occurs about every 40 years.”

Some Limestone Countians have witnessed this cycle themselves. Jean Bond lost her home on Stewart Road in Tanner in the 1974 Super Outbreak. It was destroyed again on April 27.  But Bond said she plans to rebuild: “If they’re coming every 37 years, I won’t be here,” said the 70-something Bond.

Despite recent focus on global warming, these extremes are naturally occurring and not manmade, said John R. Christy, distinguished professor of atmospheric science, Alabama’s state climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

“Recently it has become popular to try and attribute certain extreme events to human causation,” Christy said. “The Earth, however, is very large, the weather is very dynamic, especially at local scales, so that extreme events of one type or another will occur somewhere on the planet in every year. Since there are innumerable ways to define an extreme event (i.e. record high and low temperatures, number of days of a certain quantity, precipitation over 1, 2, 10 days, snowfall amounts, etc.) this essentially requires there to be numerous ‘extreme events’ in every year.”

April 27 ranks among worst

By many measurements, the tornadoes that struck Alabama on April 27 were the worst in the state’s history. The 55 tornadoes confirmed statewide so far (meteorologists are still conducting surveys) are the most recorded stemming from a single weather event.

However, the EF-5 that caused the most damage that day was not the deadliest to strike Limestone County. More people were killed here during the 1974 Super Tornado Outbreak and the 1932 Deep South Outbreak.

In April 2011 alone, the number of tornadoes that struck Alabama was triple the average for one year, according to the NWS. The average for the state is 37 tornadoes each year. Through April, 115 tornadoes had struck here, with 103 touching down in the month of April. The previous record was 94 for the year in 2008.

The state also has experienced more severe tornadoes — ranked in the EF-4 and EF-5 categories — than the total from 2000-2010, the NWS reported.

The death toll across seven Southern states on April 27 was about 350 — including 238 in Alabama — while 315 were killed on April 3, 1974, in 13 states.

Darden said the 37 years between the 1974 and 2011 outbreaks seems to be typical of severe weather cycles here.

“It does seem to be every 30 to 40 years we have a pattern of more intense weather,” he said. “Obviously, we’re in some sort of enhanced extreme pattern at this point but it may not last. There’s not really causation or correlation here. Is it global warming? There’s nothing to indicate that.”

Darden said the extremes are amplified by the fact that many younger people have not experienced this type of severe weather before.

Other Alabama extremes include:

• Highest temperature: 112 degrees in Centerville on Sept. 6, 1925.

• Lowest temperature: -27 degrees in New Market on Jan. 30, 1966.

• Most rainfall in a 24-hour period: 32.5 inches on Dauphin Island during Hurricane Danny in July 1997. (Most rain recorded in the U.S. by a scientific lab)

• Most snowfall in a 24-hour period: 20 inches in Walnut Grove on March 13, 1993.

• Snow depth: 22 inches in Reform on Jan. 24, 1940.

People need to plan for extreme events, Christy said.

“The climate system has always had within itself the capability of causing devastating events and these will certainly continue with or without human influence,” he said. “Thus, societies should plan for their infrastructure projects to be able to withstand the worst that we already know has occurred, and to recognize, in such a dynamical system, that even worse events should be expected. In other words, the set of the measured extreme events of the small climate history we have, since about 1880, does not represent the full range of extreme events that the climate system can actually generate. The most recent 130 years is simply our current era’s small sample of the long history of climate … To put it another way, a large percentage of the worst extremes over the period 1880 to 2100 will occur after 2011 simply by statistical probability without any appeal to human forcing at all.”