Texas tornadoes and wildfires: is climate change to blame?

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Another week, another round of historic weather in Texas. From five tornadoes touching down in the Austin-metro area, to tens of thousands of acres burned in another round of wildfires. In the last few years Texas has been plagued with several instances of once-in-a-lifetime weather.

So that begs the question: is climate change to blame?

“Climate change affects everything a little bit,” said Texas’ State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. According to Nielsen-Gammon, scientists look at changes over time to determine the impact climate is having on weather, but with tornadoes that isn’t possible.

“We don’t have good historical data for tornadoes in the sense of people didn’t go out and chase them until relatively recently,” Nielsen-Gammon said. Because of this, climatologists have been unable to determine if tornadoes are getting more intense or occurring more frequently.

Tornadoes are now occurring in different places

“The shift in where these tornadoes are happening is actually more climate related,” said Victor Gensini, a professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University. He says that over the last 40 years, places like Texas have seen a decrease in tornado activity while areas in the southeastern United States have seen an increase.

Jana Houser, an associate professor of meteorology at Ohio University, says that this likely due to a drying out of the great plains. “In areas where you have increasing drought… those areas are going to be less likely to see the possibility for tornado outbreaks.”

This is because droughts mean less moisture near the ground. Moisture is needed to generate the supercell storms where tornadoes form.

But droughts mean more wildfires

“Wildfires get worse because you’ve got more rapid drying out of plant material,” said Nielsen-Gammon. A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that as global temperatures continue to rise, droughts will become more common. Increased droughts will also lead to water scarcity in the United States, something Texas isn’t prepared for.

A report from 2021 found that temperatures rising just half a degree will significantly increase the chances for wildfires.

Nielsen-Gammon said that alongside increased chances for drought and wildfires, extreme hail storms and intense rain events will become more common as well.

Preventing climate change is a global endeavor, but there are things we can do locally. “Collective benefits accrue from collective action. And it’s possible to set an example locally,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

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