What a climatologist makes of what we just went through


Just after 9:40 p.m. Thursday (Aug. 24), an EF-2 tornado with a maximum wind speed of 125 miles per hour struck Greater Lansing, resulting in two confirmed deaths in Ingham County being tallied among the five statewide casualties that were reported over the weekend.

One Lansing resident, Vernita Payne, 84, died after a tree fell through the roof of her home in the 1600 block of Martin Street in Lansing. She was rescued around 10:30 p.m. but pronounced dead at the hospital. A 40-year-old Grand Rapids man also died near Williamston off Interstate 96, where the most severe damages were observed.

Along I-96, the violent storm uprooted hundreds of trees, flipped vehicles, toppled billboards and devastated properties and farming operations in Williamston and Webberville before making its way toward the Livingston County line near West Branch Red Cedar River.

Jeffrey A. Andresen, a state climatologist for Michigan and professor of geography, environment, and spatial sciences at Michigan State University, said that the timing, location and underlying weather conditions that bolstered the tornado combined to create a particularly dangerous situation for anyone driving along I-96 that night.

Climatologist Jeffrey A. Andresen
Climatologist Jeffrey A. Andresen

“The really chilling part about this is it occurred after dark, so people couldn’t see. There was also wind-wrapped, wind-driven rain and so forth to block out visibility. It’s just a very, very unfortunate set of circumstances if you’re on the highway and don’t know about it, and can’t see it,” Andreson said.

The National Weather Service reported a total of seven tornados that touched down in Michigan last week, with six of those occurring in the state’s southeast and the Williamston-Webberville area’s EF-2 being by far the most threatening of all.

“I think the events that we hear of Thursday night are a reminder that it does happen. It’s also important to note that we’ve had violent tornadoes in Michigan as well that have been caused much, much greater devastation and loss of life,” Andreson said.

He specifically referenced the Flint-Beecher Tornado, an F5-rated twister that took 116 lives and injured 844 on June 8, 1953. It remains the last F5 in the United States to have claimed over 100 lives.

Flint-Beecher “was actually one of the worst single-killer tornadoes in the U.S., let alone Michigan,” Andreson said. “Fortunately, those tornadoes that are this significant and violent are very rare — not just here, but anywhere. It takes a special combination of circumstances that come together to create them.

Speaking of Michigan, he added, “We do have a lot of these natural-disaster, weather-related events, but there’s just fewer of them, and many times, they’re of lesser magnitude than they are in other parts of the U.S. or other parts of the world.”

With that said, while Lansing’s most recent brush with a deadly twister was still out of the ordinary to some extent, Andreson’s takeaway is that those events should serve as a powerful reminder going forward.

“I think that is the major message from last Thursday. They can happen, and we have to be on our guard. And just as importantly, we have to take the warnings seriously,” he said.

How might Michiganders better prepare themselves for tornadoes in the future?

“The common theme is to find some type of an interior room. Typically, it’s lower level if possible. Of course, if you’ve got a basement, that’s even better. It ideally needs to be an internal room, preferably without windows, that has some type of reinforcing support in the wall, something like plumbing, which will help protect you from flying debris,” Andreson said.

It seems as though greater levels of preparedness could have prevented at least two more deaths in the area. On Tuesday (Aug. 29), the Lansing Police Department announced that an investigation was underway after two residents were found dead of probable carbon monoxide poisoning at a house in the 4000 block of Woodbridge Drive on Saturday (Aug. 26).

 The victims — a 51-year-old man and a 42-year-old woman — had a generator running in the house when the area lost power, a setup that can produce deadly levels of the odorless gas in minutes while activated indoors.

Roughly 500,000 Michigan residents lost power in southern Michigan at the storm’s peak. The Lansing Board of Water & Light’s initial report listed 33,000 customers without service.

In addition to understanding how to best protect oneself in the event of a dangerous storm event, it’s also helpful to know when tornadoes are most likely to form.

In Michigan, most tornadoes occur in the late afternoon and through the evening, Andreson explained. The storms also follow annual cycles, with June being the most frequent month, followed by May, July and August.

While a greater number of Michigan tornadoes typically surface in those months, Andreson also pointed out another trend that makes last week’s storms all the more peculiar.

“If you do some research and look into the tornadoes that really cause  problems — that are violent and cause more damage, injuries and fatalities — they tend to be earlier into the spring. So, the month of April, even March and May, you’ll see larger numbers there,” Andreson said.

A tornado requires a few important factors to take shape.

“First, you need to have a severe thunderstorm. In that thunderstorm, you need to have extreme instability with rapidly rising updrafts, and that’s actually what causes the thunderstorm — even the garden variety thunderstorms,” Andreson said. The result is an unstable mix of weather conditions that boil over to create damaging winds.

“It has to do with how warm it is and how much humidity there is now at the surface,” Andreson said. “When these and other factors are there, it can lead the circulation” that’s part of the severe thunderstorm “to reach down towards the ground, and that’s essentially what the tornado is.”

One looming question remains. Is the recent tornado in Ingham County a possible sign that global warming is — like with the recent wildfires on Maui and the more numerous occurrences in places like California — somehow related to the sinister, steady advance of climate change?

“It’s really an intriguing question, and the answer is that we really don’t know because it’s very, very difficult to say for sure,” Andreson said. “It really is almost impossible to attribute a single one of these events to some kind of a change in climate because our climate in Michigan is becoming warmer and wetter with time. That’s the trajectory that we’re on right now.”

Warmer and wetter over time? That does sound a lot like global warming, no?

“As the atmosphere warms up, and we have more humidity like we did last week, at least the potential for stronger thunderstorms is there, and, of course, that could be related. So, what we may be looking at over time — and this is true of other types of extreme weather events like heat waves as well — is that, statistically, the probability or the odds of seeing one of these events is probably increasing,” Andreson said.

On the other hand, the human race simply hasn’t been around long enough to have collected the massive amounts of data needed to confirm any suspicions that more violent storms are on their way.

A large tree that was completely uprooted in the neighborhood just south of Willow Highway during last week’s tornado is one of many throughout the city that remains unmoved as recently Tuesday (Aug. 29).
A large tree that was completely uprooted in the neighborhood just south of Willow Highway during last week’s tornado is one of many throughout the …

“It’s important to remember — and I really emphasize this with students — that the storm is just nature’s way of taking an energy imbalance in one place and minimizing that. These are events that that are responding to very short-term conditions. And, of course, climate change and warming are something that goes on over a much longer period,” Andreson said.

So, while it remains to be proven and the jury is still out, it’s important that we take this recent series of Michigan tornadoes seriously.

“That’s one of the concerns for the future: that extreme events may become more frequent. The issue is that as the atmosphere warms and has more humidity, there’s more energy there,” Andreson said.


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