Reaping the whirlwind
February 17, 2023
MOBILE, AL. — As I sit here, my computer screen facing the window, I see the storm
clouds gathering. I am trying to determine whether my daughter will be able to walk
home from her school three blocks away or whether I will have to pick her up again
because of a severe thunderstorm. As I write this, an estimated 80 million Americans
across 25 states are on alert for severe weather.
Here in Alabama’s Gulf Coast region, we have no reason to prepare for the heavy snow
(sometimes snow cyclones) or ice storms that residents of many states have seen this
winter. Instead, we hunker down in fear of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, which
continue to plague us. Last year, the state of Alabama saw 98 tornadoes, the second
highest number on record, according to the National Weather Service.
And this year is off to a record start, with 28 confirmed tornadoes in Alabama in January,
the highest number ever recorded for the month. The top five years for tornadoes in the
state have all been recorded in this century, when climate change has shown its
devastating effects. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the past eight
years have been the hottest on record.
Climate scientists have not established a clear connection between a warming planet
and the intensity and frequency of tornadoes, unlike floods and drought. Still,
researchers have warned that a hotter atmosphere sparks more severe weather events.
“When you start putting a lot of these events together, and you start looking at
them in the aggregate sense, the statistics are pretty clear that not only has there
sort of been a change — a shift, if you will — of where the greatest tornado
frequency is happening. But these events are (also) becoming perhaps stronger,
more frequent and also more variable,” Victor Gensini, a Northern Illinois University
professor and tornado expert, has said.
Even if it’s not clear that warmer weather sparks more tornadoes, it is clear, according to
climate scientists, that the “tornado alley” has shifted east. In the last century, tornadoes
concentrated in the plains of Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas, sparking the
imaginations of writers such as L Frank Baum, who penned The Wizard of Oz. But the
tornado belt has shifted significantly east of the Mississippi River, where regions are
more densely populated and more damage can occur.
In his 2017 dystopian novel, “American War,” writer Omar El Akkad conjures a nation
cleaved by a second civil war — this one sparked by citizens’ very different reactions to
the devastation caused by climate change. After the president bans fossil-fuel vehicles,
a shooting war breaks out between North and South.
One of the main characters has grown up in a Gulf Coast region already heavily flooded
and wracked by frequent and violent storms. Though the story begins sometime in the
late 20 th century, this region feels as though its weather patterns are already close to
that sort of devastation.
And we keep stumbling mindlessly toward disaster. The onset of higher gas prices (still
lower than they are in Europe) has led to a nation of discontented drivers demanding
less costly access to fossil fuels. Moreover, the suggestion that gas stoves might
eventually be prohibited led to a full-scale freak-out among conservative pundits.
Even when we agree that climate change is wreaking havoc on our environment, we
can’t agree on what to do about it. Out West, where raging wildfires have ravaged
communities for the past several years, many homeowners insist on re-building right
where they were. Many homeowners with beach-front property do the same.
City leaders in Charleston, where rising sea levels are a major headache, want to build
a billion dollar seawall around a vulnerable part of town, but some engineers and
environmentalists worry that it won’t stop a severe storm surge. In addition, new
highways and homes in Charleston are still being built in floodplains.
We might yet come to our senses and determine that we have to change the way we
live — starting with less dependence on fossil fuels. But it seems likely that we will
endure much more death and destruction before we do.