Dr. Christopher Weiss, Professor of Atmospheric Science at Texas Tech, Talks Tornados in Out of Season December

Dr. Christopher Weiss, Professor of Atmospheric Science at Texas Tech, Talks Tornados in Out of Season December


Live from Music Row Monday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Texas Tech Professor of Atmospheric Science, Christopher Weiss to the newsmakers line to give insight into the recent tornados hitting Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, and other states late Friday evening.

Leahy: We are joined on the newsmaker line by Professor Christopher Weiss, a Professor of Atmospheric Science at Texas Tech University. Welcome, Professor Weiss. Thanks for joining us this morning.

Weiss: Yeah. Good morning. Thank you for having me. So you have a BS in Atmospheric and Space Sciences from Michigan-Ann Arbor. By the way, a pretty good season for the Blue, huh?

Weiss: Yeah. Beating Ohio State was certainly a big plus. (Chuckles)

Leahy: And in the National Championship, you think your guys are going to make it?

Weiss: Oh, boy, I don’t know. I don’t want to jinx it here, but we’re certainly optimistic. I don’t know. We might get past Georgia. I’m not sure in the Championship.

Leahy: So you actually have gone to these big powerhouse football schools majoring in atmospheric sciences. You got your PhD from the University of Oklahoma in Norman. So you’ve seen some great college football games, haven’t you?

Weiss: I sure have.  Obviously, things are kind of going the opposite direction at the moment, but, yeah, I can’t have everything I suppose.

Leahy: Now you’re an expert on tornadoes, then. Is that right?

Weiss: I’ve studied tornadoes.

Leahy: Now tell us about this. The recent tornadoes, it’s pretty devastating. Is this the worst tornado in decades to hit Kentucky primarily, but also some in Tennessee, Arkansas, Illinois and I think a little bit in Missouri?

Weiss: Yeah. There are a lot of things about this event that are noteworthy, for sure. The fact that it’s occurring so far out of season here in December, that’s certainly one noteworthy item. The number of tornadoes in the event, I’ve seen numbers anywhere from 60.

Well, I’m sorry, 60 reports for these tornadoes, but the fact that we had these long-track tornadoes. We had two long-track tornadoes and one extremely long-track tornado that might be a record in terms of a continuous path lengths.

We’ll have to see with the study here whether it was one continuous tornado or if it was a series of tornado segments, what we call tornado families. That’s what often happens in these outbreaks.

So we’re trying to figure out exactly what makes this event unique, but certainly probably the highest impact tornado event for your region in recent memory, for sure.

Leahy: So I don’t know if you’ve looked into this issue, but there were claims by, I think President Biden sort of advanced the claim that this may be a consequence of ‘global warming.’ Have you seen those claims? What’s your take on all this?

Weiss: Anytime we have a significant weather event, this question certainly pops up. It’s a hot button issue right now, and it’s the strong opinions on both sides of course. Yes.

The standard answer we give is that we have to be careful because we’re talking about different scales here. When we talk about climate change, we’re talking about something that’s been occurring over decades.

And then you try to connect that individual, short-fused events like tornadoes, which are called from minutes to hours. We need to be careful in that comparison.

And when we look at large compilation of reports over multiple decades of tornadoes, then we can start trying to align the apples up with the apples. It depends on what your metric is on tornado occurrence.

If you’re looking at the total number of tornadoes that occur across the country, when we look at the trend, we don’t really see a significant increase when you take into account some of the other non-Meteorological factors that are in play.

For example, the fact that there are more people observing these storms, and there are a lot more spotters out. Certainly, the built environment has increased over the past few decades. There’s more things for the tornadoes to hit.

So when you take into account those factors and we don’t see a real strong signal for the increase in the number of tornadoes. What we do see is a shift, a shift in where the tornadoes are occurring.

And that’s been proven in some recent papers in the peer review literature. So traditionally, if you think about tornado alley being here, where we’re at here in Texas or  Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, that’s the traditional tornado alley.

That’s where we see most of the tornadoes in April, May and parts of June. And that’s still true. We still have the most tornadoes here at that time of year. But the relative frequency has decreased, and instead we’re seeing increases now out in your neck of the woods.

When we get out to Tennessee, Kentucky, and parts of the upper Midwest up there, we receive a shift in where the tornadoes are happening. That seems to be the climate signal that’s most assailant I suppose.

Leahy: Is there a reason or any hypotheses as to why there’s a greater frequency of tornadoes in the Tennessee general Midwest area, Upper South Midwest area than there have been previously?

Weiss: That’s a great question. You’re hitting some key topics that are currently being studied right now. There’s a paper that looked at this in some detail and actually looked at it as a function of El Nino as well.

Currently, we’re in the El Nino phase. But I think it also applies to this just overall evolution and the climate signal, too. Let’s back up just a second here. Just to review how we get these types of traumatic events.

So there’s a few things you need to have in place. One thing is you need to have it needs to rise (Inaudible talk) If you ever look at a tonnetic thunderstorm from a distance, you’ll see this up draft.

This area that’s going up very quickly creates beautiful, cauliflower-looking cumulus clouds, and they go upwards of 100 miles per hour in the strongest storm. So imagine getting a car and pointing straight up and gunning it.

That’s basically what these storms look like. We need to have buoyant air to make that happen. And part of that is temperature. So we need to have warmer at the ground compared to the temperature of the air loft.

There’s kind of two ends to that. When you have colder air aloft and warmer at the ground that tends to produce thunderstorms, the only thing we need is moisture. We need to have water vapor.

And this is one of the things that’s really key for this signal is we need to have higher amounts of water vapor. So that area that affects you if you look back upstream, comes primarily off the Gulf of Mexico.

And when air sits over top of a water basin for a while, it starts picking up as water vapor. That water evaporates from the Gulf and into the air above. And then the wind blows that water vapor up into one your case, into central Tennessee.

So that’s a big part of it. In global climate change, of course, the water is warming with time, hence this is why we hurricanes as well. But it also means that the amount of water vapor that the air can hold is also higher.

Leahy: Let me ask you this. Our last question because we’re running out of time, here. Very interesting explanation. Have you ever been in or near a tornado yourself?

Weiss: Yes, I certainly have. I’ve been in the field studying these things for a number of years. We had some fairly close calls. It’s kind of a dangerous job out there, but it’s one that I feel is important that we get to observe these tornadoes.

Leahy: Are you like the guys in that movie twister?

Weiss: Yeah. We have all the instrumentation. We have doppler radars.

Leahy: Do you get your truck and, like, chase after a tornado?

Weiss: Yes.

Leahy: You do really? Oh, my goodness. Are you worried that it might come turn towards you?

Weiss: Yeah. We try to stay at a distance. And we allow the storm to evolve as it comes towards us.

Leahy: Have you ever thought my time is about to be up? Have you ever thought this tornado might get me?

Weiss: Yeah. Well, I’ve been in the outer fringes of tornadoes before unexpectedly.

Leahy: Well, we’re glad you made it through. Dr. Christopher Weiss, thanks so much for joining us today from Texas Tech. It’s been a pleasure.

Weiss: Thanks for having me.

Leahy: I appreciate that insight.

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Dr. Christopher Weiss” by Texas Tech University.








Theoretical Physicist and Author of Unsettled, NYU Professor Steven E. Koonin Discusses What Science Tells Us

Theoretical Physicist and Author of Unsettled, NYU Professor Steven E. Koonin Discusses What Science Tells Us


Live from Music Row Friday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed author and theoretical physicist, Professor Steven E. Koonin to the newsmakers line to discuss climate science and renewable energy viability.

Leahy: We are delighted to have author, Professor at NYU, and former Obama administration under Secretary for Science Stephen Koonin. Steven is the author of Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us What It Doesn’t and Why It Matters. Professor Koonin, are you with us this morning?

Koonin: I am and I’m happy to be talking to you from New York.

Leahy: Well, we are delighted to have you on the line. So tell us what does climate science tell us?

Koonin: Well, we know a few facts for sure about the climate. The globe has warmed, on average, about two degrees Fahrenheit over the last century or 120 years. We see some signs of warming. The oceans are getting warmer. We see some melting of polar ice. But beyond that, most severe weather phenomena don’t show anything outside of their natural variations. And most people are very surprised when you tell them that.

Leahy: What is the cause of that increase in the average temperature of two degrees Fahrenheit over the past 100 years? Is it, as the climate alarmist say, all because of man’s activities, or is it sort of a natural ebb and flow?

Koonin: It’s certainly a combination of both. There’s no doubt that humans are exerting an influence on the climate, mostly through greenhouse gases. And that influence is growing. But there is a lot of natural variability in the system which makes it difficult to determine the precise proportion between the human cause and natural.

If you go back 150 years, the climate was still varying a lot, and that makes it difficult to untangle today what we see between human and natural causes.

Leahy: Is this process of accelerating think over the next hundred years? What’s your best guess?

Koonin: I think we’re going to see it warm another degree Celsius, two degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. Other changes in hurricanes, in severe storms, in heat waves, I think, remain to be seen. As I mentioned so far again in the U.S. we’ve hardly seen any changes in those things.

Leahy: Should the public policy be altered dramatically to cut down on greenhouse gases, et cetera? And would it have any impact on this likely continued increase in the temperature of one degree Fahrenheit over the next hundred years?

Koonin: Two degrees Fahrenheit over the next hundred years. Whether we alter policy either in the U.S. or globally, is really a values question. What science can and should do is outline possible risks and benefits from future changes.

But in the end, society needs to decide its own risk tolerance. How much does it care about development versus the environment, intergenerational equity, and then come to some fully informed decision? Right now, the official projections say that there will be a minimal economic impact of warming of even three or four degrees.

Much more than Paris is talking about over the next century. I think we’ve going to ask ourselves whether it’s worth it or not. And we have not had that informed discussion.

Carmichael: Quick question to help our audience have a background, you are a theoretical physicist. Is that correct?

Koonin: That’s correct. For a brief career, I was for 30 years of professor and then provost at Caltech. I was for five years the chief scientist at BP, the oil company where I helped them move into renewable energy. And then for two and a half years, I was under Secretary for Science in the U.S. Department of Energy in the first Obama administration.

Carmichael: So given your background in renewable energies, are there some renewable energies that you think are going to be economically viable sooner than others?

Koonin: Yes. Some are already quite economically viable. You’ve got a lot of hydropower down in the Southeast, but it’s difficult to build more. The wind is quite economical and solar is certainly economical as well.

The problem is you cannot build a whole electrical system on wind and solar alone because they don’t produce when you need them to produce. They only produce when it’s windy or sunny.

Leahy: When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says the world is going to end in 12 years unless we stop global warming, I guess now it’s down to nine years. Something like that. What’s your reaction to those kinds of comments?

Koonin: She’s a politician. And when politicians talk about technical matters, I generally don’t pay them much attention. (Leahy laughs)

Leahy: A good policy.

Koonin: I wish she, Greta, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and John Kerry would read my book because they will discover that the actual science doesn’t say what they think it says.

Carmichael: With all due respect, they’re not going to read your book because they need plausible deniability.

Koonin: Yeah.

Carmichael: And if they read your book, then they have to admit that there is another side of the argument. By the way, I own your book. It’s number three on my list to read.

Koonin: Okay, good. I hope you’ll find it an interesting and engaging read. Many people have.

Carmichael: Well, thank you. I’m looking forward to it.

Leahy: Professor Koonin, so now your book is out. What kind of reaction have you gotten from a, your academic community, and your peers in theoretical physics and climate science, and then b, generally in the public?

Koonin: Many of my colleagues with a scientific or engineering background say, wow, this is really interesting and useful. I’m glad you did it but watch out. And in fact, the climate science community is already after me with a couple of bad reviews, even though everything in the book is from the official report.

Leahy: Are they dishonest when they do something like that?

Koonin: Yeah, I think so. I think so. There are a lot of people invested in the climate crisis and laying down the fact that there is no crisis is not going to please them.

Leahy: Because of this book, is the New York University going to put you on the bad Professor list and do something to harm your situation, or are you going to be okay?

Koonin: Well, you know, having once been pretty much in charge of a university, I’m very sensitive to the tensions between the administration and the faculty. And so when the book was just about finished before it was published, I had a conversation with the leadership at NYU.

And I’ve got to say they said the right things, namely, Steve, were behind you. You’ve got the academic freedom to say what you’re saying. We expect you’re right because we know you’re a rigorous guy, we’ve got your back. And so far, it’s been wonderful.

Leahy: Well, that is very encouraging.

Carmichael: That really is. That’s good. It’s discouraging but unsurprising that you’re getting pushed back by people and they’re really trying to attack your character when all you’re doing is what any good scientist would do in that is study the facts and present them for laypeople like me to be able to understand them.

Koonin: As an educator, my greatest story is just getting people to understand. In the end, I don’t care which way this comes out. But let’s do it where everybody’s got a good understanding of what’s

Leahy: Professor Stephen Koonin, thanks so much for joining us today. Author of the book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us What It Doesn’t and Why It Matters. Come back in about a month and tell us how everything’s gone in the public release of this Dr. Koonin. And thank you for joining.

Koonin: I’d be delighted to chat again.

Listen to the full third hour here:

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to the Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.