America’s billion-dollar disasters have scientists alarmed – “We are still very unsure what the future holds”

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that the U.S. has around 1200 tornados each year, and that number has a strong potential to grow. Dangerous storms are causing massive damage, but even worse – they are taking lives. Another alarming part is that tornados are not related to one region, as they happen across all 50 states.

17 billion-dollar destruction from 2018 to 2023

The May 2011 Joplin tornado (Missouri) left the community in shock after taking 161 lives and causing damage worth nearly three billion dollars. Joplin was rebuilt, but it took years. FEMA Associate Administrator for Resilience Victoria Salinas told CNBC, “It oftentimes takes years to be able to rebuild communities, homes, [and] businesses. And it takes communities coming together to really think about the future and what they’re going to do differently to build more resilience into their communities as they move forward.”

Victor Gensini, associate professor in the Department of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment at Northern Illinois University, confirmed that tornadoes can occur anywhere, “If you were to ask a thousand tornado scientists where Tornado Alley is, they’re all going to give you different definitions.” The professor added, “The reality is, is that all 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, receive tornadoes.”

Scientists are examining global warming’s connection to tornados, and they are increasingly worried about the frequency of these deadly storms. 2018 study by NIU and the NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory found that parts of the Southeast and Midwest saw “significant increasing trends of tornado reports and tornado environments.” Still, the idea of “tornado alley” is misleading.

The numbers are growing

In January 2023, the U.S. saw more than triple the number of tornadoes it usually does. In March, it was double the average. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that typically there are 388 tornados from January to April. However, this year, at the same timeframe, there had been 561.

Dr. Jana Houser, who teaches meteorology at Ohio State University, told Wired, “We really can’t pinpoint what we expect to see in terms of when and where tornadoes are going to occur.” She added, “We are still very unsure what the future holds.” One thing that could help people live with the growing number of tornados would be strict building codes. But that takes time and money.

Building better

Modern building codes are not applied in around 65 percent of counties nationwide. Building tornado-resilient structures is challenging because there are no federal laws, and only 17 states have a building code. That’s because building code changes would increase the prices of housing. However, in 2022, FEMA released the Building Codes Strategy, and federal sources are available to help build safer communities.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, which passed in 2021, includes repairing and rebuilding roads and bridges and preparing more infrastructure for the impact of climate change. Its focus is on resilience, equity, and safety in all communities. This bill is important because, in the Joplin tragedy, around 84 percent of lives lost were due to poor structures.

Yet, some scientists argue that global warming might make tornados less dangerous. National Geographic noted, “There’s been no increase in stronger twisters, and maybe even a slight decrease in EF4s and EF5s.” While this sounds like great news, it does not mean that building codes should be ignored.

Kate Smith, a self-proclaimed word nerd who relishes the power of language to inform, entertain, and inspire. Kate's passion for sharing knowledge and sparking meaningful conversations fuels her every word.