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?
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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Photo “Dr. Christopher Weiss” by Texas Tech University.