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Is climate change in Southwest Florida to blame for one storm spawning seven tornadoes?

Expert in hurricanes and climate change | Florida Gulf Coast University
Florida Gulf Coast University
Florida Gulf Coast University
Expert in hurricanes and climate change | Florida Gulf Coast University

Seven tornadoes touched down in Southwest Florida on Sunday, damaging or destroying hundreds of homes in three counties, toppling trees and power poles, leaving hundreds without electricity, injuring at least three people and causing property damage sure to climb into the millions.

As bad as the string of tornadoes in Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties were for those injured or left homeless Sunday, the devastation paled in comparison, by far, to the 70 tornadoes that decimated entire towns in the southern U.S. and the Ohio Valley last month. Ninety people died as the massive twisters that crossed five states, left 740,000 people without power, injured 196, and caused property damages that totaled nearly $4 billion.

About the only question that can be asked in comparison of both tornado outbreaks, despite the massive disproportion in pain, suffering and loss, is this: Would the weather systems have been as relatively destructive as they were – would they have formed at all -- if it weren’t for a warming planet?

“We could potentially see more of these storms in Southwest Florida, and more of these storms occurring across the U.S.” said Joanne Muller, a Florida Gulf Coast University associate professor and expert in climate change with a special focus on Southwest Florida. “I have seen a lot of predictions for more of these types of weather events in a warming world, but in terms of the science it’s not fully understood yet.”

Muller said Sunday’s storm was the tail end of a nor’easter that was moving up the East Coast. The potential for multi-tornadic cells may become stronger due to systemic alterations that climate change may already be injecting into the Southwest Florida environment, she said. This means potentially more nor’easters would bring more atmospheric instability, which could potentially cause more water vapor, which could lead to more squall lines like the one that gave rise to Sunday’s tornadoes.

Key word: potentially.

“We’ll see more squall lines and therefore, potentially, more tornadoes like this.” Muller said. “Scientists like to be really quite certain about things before they say ‘for sure.’

Tornadoes are formed when warm, wet air on the surface of the Earth – like over the Gulf of Mexico – rises into cold, dry air high in the sky. The moisture carried in the warm air freezes and falls toward the ground. If this two-way superhighway of air and water changes speed or direction, low pressure forms on the inside of the air column and high pressure on the out, and the whole thing can start spinning like an ice skater pulling in tight.

Sarah Gibbens wrote an article in December’s issue of National Geographic as a result of the Midwest tornado outbreak. She reported that, in general, climatologists say the relationship between a warming world and the frequency and destructiveness of tornadoes is not as well established as is how climate change effects heat waves and floods. But there are those who see a clear link.

Victor Gensini, an extreme weather expert at Northern Illinois University, told Gibbens he is quite sure there is a correlation between climate change and twister development.

“Instead of asking: ‘Did climate change cause this tornado,’ Gensini said of December’s major outbreak. “It’s better to operate under the assumption that climate change did play a role. Start from the premise that every extreme event is being affected by climate change.”

Sunday’s seven-tornado outbreak in Southwest Florida was an event of an exceptional nature.

The National Weather Service confirmed early Monday that seven tornadoes touched down Sunday morning in Southwest Florida. The first happened at 6:37 a.m. near Boca Grande in Charlotte County, and the second at 7:35 a.m. in Punta Rassa near Fort Myers in Lee County. That tornado injured three.

Five more twisters were confirmed in Collier County during the half-hour that ended at 9:50 a.m., four of which were in the greater Naples area. One of those flipped a tractor-trailer onto its side on Interstate 75 near mile marker 96. The fifth tornado, at 11 a.m. just north of Everglades City, bent over a power pole near U.S. 41.

Tyler Fleming, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Ruskin, said it is not unheard of to have multiple tornadoes drop from one squall line in Southwest Florida, but he did not immediately have the data to say when the last time seven twisters were spawned from one storm in the region.

“It’s a bit rare to see this many in one day,” Fleming said. “But it certainly is not unheard of.”

Reporting on the environment for WGCU is funded in part by the Volo Foundation.