Cutting The Tornado Body Count

Tornado Deaths

After the recent spate of tornados, Plumer takes a close look at when twisters kill:

The chart above comes from Harold Brooks of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Even though more and more Americans are living in areas where twisters roam, the number of tornado deaths per capita has declined in the last century.

One reason? Better early warning systems. Back in the 1980s, forecasters could only give about five minutes warning before a tornado hit, on average. Today, that’s up to around 14 minutes, thanks to new radar systems and better forecasting. That gives people more time to seek shelter.

But improving warning times to a full hour might not lower fatalities:

[I]f people do seek shelter for an hour and the warning turns out to be false, that may make them far more skeptical of future warnings. [Economist Kevin] Simmons’ research has found that areas with more false tornado alarms have higher levels of fatalities when twisters do hit — presumably because people ignore the warnings.

Chris Mooney wonders whether climate change will mean more or bigger tornados:

[I]t would be very premature to say that scientists know precisely what will happen to tornadoes as global warming progresses. However, they have come up with some interesting new results, which point to potentially alarming changes. More generally, the upshot of this research is that tornadoes must change as a result of climate change, because the environments in which they form are changing.

And Allison Kopicki finds that people don’t plan well for tornadoes:

Despite past encounters with extreme weather and expectations for more, nearly 6 in 10 of those in the South and more than 7 in 10 in the Midwest said they had not created a disaster plan that all of their family members knew. More Southerners (44 percent) than Midwesterners (27 percent) said they had created an emergency supply kit.