- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2011

As residents of Joplin, Mo., and surrounding towns dug out Monday from the latest devastating storm to pummel the American heartland, weather researchers said recent atmospheric patterns have produced a recipe of disaster for Americans in the South and Midwest.

The devastating tornado that hit Joplin on Sunday, which rescuers now say has killed at least 116 people, is the latest in a deadly string of natural disasters caused by an exceptionally unstable spring weather pattern with a knack for striking highly populated areas.

Jack Hayes, director of the National Weather Service, described the spring of 2011 as “an active, busy storm season” that’s already entering the record books.

“If you think back to early April, our forecasters have been on hyperdrive since that first outbreak in the South,” Mr. Hayes said.

Rescue crews Monday dug through piles of splintered houses and crushed cars in a search for victims of a half-mile-wide tornado that blasted much of the Missouri town off the map and slammed straight into its hospital.

The Associated Press reported that authorities fear the toll could rise as the full scope of the destruction comes into view: house after house reduced to slabs, cars crushed like soda cans, shaken residents roaming streets in search of missing family members. And the danger was by no means over. Fires from gas leaks burned across town, and more violent weather loomed, including the threat of hail, high winds and even more tornadoes.

Authorities were prepared to find more bodies in the rubble throughout the gritty, blue-collar town of 50,000 people about 160 miles south of Kansas City. An unknown number of people were hurt.

So far, tornadoes have resulted in an estimated 484 deaths this year, most of those in the monstrous April 27 tornado that hit Alabama. That’s the highest death count since 1953, when 519 people were killed by tornadoes.

Tom Schwein, deputy director of the National Weather Service’s central region, said that “certainly it’s going to go down as a significant weather season, if not one of the most significant.”

What’s sobering is that it’s only late May. Tornado season usually peaks in June, with tornadoes still touching down sporadically until July in most years.

Indeed, the next blast of severe tornado activity is expected to occur as early as Tuesday. Federal weather forecasters predicted Monday that severe tornadoes are expected to strike in Kansas, Oklahoma, western Missouri and northern Texas.

The only good news is that the region isn’t as densely populated as Joplin or Tuscaloosa, Ala., where tornadoes have killed hundreds of people. Even so, “It’s a very serious situation,” said Russell Schneider, director of the NWS Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

The record for the most tornadoes in a single year came in 1974, when scientists counted 267 tornadoes for the season. That figure came before the advent of Doppler radar and mobile electronic devices, which can send information across the Internet instantly, leading experts to conclude that the 267 figure is probably low.

So far, 2011 is not on pace to break the 1974 record. “It’s going to be a very active period, but probably not a U.S. record at this point,” Mr. Schneider said.

What’s also unusual about this year’s tornadoes is that they’re bearing east of the traditional “tornado alley” that runs through Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. This year’s most catastrophic tornadoes have hit well east of that sparsely populated corridor, which accounts for the higher death toll.

As for why that’s the case, scientists aren’t sure. “We’re going to need research to answer why, but certainly when activity shifts eastward, it’s a bad [situation] for the United States,” Mr. Schneider said.

All this severe weather has led some to point to climate change, or global warming, as the culprit, but most scientists caution that it’s too early to draw conclusions.

“There are some reasons to believe it’s more or less a fluke,” said Jonathan Martin, University of Wisconsin professor and expert on severe weather. “You need a whole bunch of environmental characteristics to line up before you get this recurrence of tornadic activity.

“On the other hand, some of that flukeness may be a direct consequence of a changing environment around the globe, particularly warming around the planet, which extends a season in which the tropics can react in such a way to produce these events.”

Douglas Miller, professor at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and a specialist in atmospheric science, said more time is needed before pointing the finger at global warming. He noted that the South has witnessed severe weather for the last two springs.

“It’s too hard to say at such a short time period. It’s more likely that it has to do with the shifting weather patterns than to anything longer-term,” Mr. Miller said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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