May 27, 2011

Twister's Tale


In that swath of the American flatland that has been so brutalized of late, a 93-year-old woman gave me a warning. She had lost her house as a little girl, a homestead property of timber-sheltered memories that shattered in a twister's strike and took to the Oklahoma sky.

She had cautioned me to be wary of springtime — glorious days in a glorious stretch of prairie that can turn deadly on a dime. "Don't get too far from a shelter." Yes, yes, I'd heard plenty about hail the size of grapefruit and how the weather might kick up four things that could kill you — wildfire, blizzard, flash flood, tornado.

But it seemed quaint to these urban ears, a "Wizard of Oz" artifact from Dorothy's pals on the farm. What I learned that afternoon in Tornado Alley is that nothing is more terrifying than a sky of robin's-egg blue turning bruised and churlish, a moment that transforms trees and telephone poles into missiles.

The spring of 2011 is shaping up as one for all the wrong kind of records. Flooding, twisters, Texas wildfires, deaths by fast-moving air that has its own awful category known too well by millions — the Enhanced Fujita Scale, the worst being EF5, winds 200 m.p.h. or more. In a year when almost 500 Americans have died from tornadoes, and 60 or more twisters touch down in a single day, even the cable weather jockeys look humbled as they stand next to flattened neighborhoods.

April and May are the cruelest months, when systems and seasons collide, warm moist air at the surface meeting drier air higher up. Brewing, building, these tornadoes develop out of rotating thunderstorms called supercells.

For an outsider, when the radio suddenly goes into emergency broadcast mode and clouds bleed a ragged black, there is an instant that technical talk turns to terror. You feel exposed in a naked land. You feel a target. You think nothing is permanently anchored. You look for an overpass. You understand, somewhat, what it must have been like in wartime London when the sirens went off in advance of another bombing by the Germans. You feel helpless.

It is human to want to see these storms as part of a larger pattern, to anthropomorphize them with words like "nature's wrath," to ascribe a motive to the mayhem. But also something else: to see a warning of the oldest kind, dating to Greek mythology, a warning about hubris.

Earlier this year, Republicans in a congressional panel declared, by a majority vote, that climate change caused by humans does not exist. The majority of the House then voted to get rid of federal funding for the world's finest scientists in the field to study the changing earth, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Blink, blink, just like that — our representatives wished away the future.

The twisters, floods and fires of this year have another say, and remind us that some political gestures are no more relevant than a lone pair of lips flapping in the wind. Of course, among atmospheric scientists there is ambiguity, at best, about whether global warming has anything to do with the worst tornado season in modern times.

But the consensus of fair-minded research — ignored by those who assume to know better in the Republican Congress — is that an earth warmed by an excess of man-caused carbon emissions will cause more weather extremes. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold air — that's an axiom that a congressman with a set of talking points paid for by Exxon cannot wish away. Torrential flooding in all parts of the world could easily be part of a new phase brought on by just a few upticks in ocean temperatures. The forecast is simple: You ain't seen nothing yet.

To recognize this threat, even with its implicit calls for sacrifice in a country that cannot tolerate $4 a gallon gas, is not to be alarmist. The unknown — that is, any possible link between a surfeit of lethal tornadoes and a warmer planet — makes a case for proceeding with caution. We treat our bodies that way, most of us; when a warning comes out of possible cancer links to a food or substance, sensible people change course.

But there is a loud and intellectually corrupt segment of public life dedicated to fact-denial. They will not allow even a slim chance that humans are making a mess of this place. They will not do what a homeowner facing unlikely odds of a fire has to do just to hold a mortgage — take out insurance.

Listen to people who have lived long lives in the American midsection, a place of peril, and a place that is deeply loved. They tell us to be prepared, to be humble in the face of nature, to think about the worst thing that could come from the sky. If this is radical advice, then common sense has surely met an early death.

Timothy Egan worked for The Times for 18 years – as Pacific Northwest correspondent and a national enterprise reporter. His column on American politics and life as seen from the West Coast appears here on Fridays. In 2001, he was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America." He is the author of several books, including "The Worst Hard Time," a history of the Dust Bowl, for which he won the National Book Award, and most recently, "The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America."
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