Standing in the rain and rubble of Joplin, Mo., “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams spoke with Jim Cantore, Weather Channel reporter, wondering what had happened.

They compared the tornado destruction on April 27 in Alabama to what had occurred on May 22 in Missouri.


“I can’t believe this is the city where I lived,” said Williams, who got his start in Joplin. “That was my new benchmark – Alabama. I’ve seen my share of tornadoes… I’ve shot video of a couple of them out here… This breaks that for me.”


Williams said, “What’s happening? Everyone keeps stopping me and saying this didn’t used to happen. This never happened when I lived here. This didn’t used to happen. Cars looking like they’re from Baghdad, covered in shrapnel, hospitals looking like the ones I’ve seen in Baghdad and Afghanistan – this is out of hand.”


Indeed, what is happening?


The death toll from the tornado that struck Tuscaloosa, Ala., reached 41. The death toll from the tornado that struck Joplin has climbed to 125 and is expected to rise with some 232 people missing. More weather violence claimed 12 more people in Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma a few days later.


Are these horrific tornadoes the result of global warming?


“It is almost impossible for us to pinpoint these specific events … and say they were caused by climate change,” William Chamedies, dean of the Nicolas School of the Environment at Duke University, told Voice of America.


Chamedies, an atmospheric scientist, went on to say: “On the other hand we do know that because of climate change those kinds of events will very, very likely become more common, more frequent, more intense. So what we can say is that these kinds of events that we are seeing are consistent with climate change.”


Robert Henson, meteorologist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, told the Washington Post, “Climate change could be boosting one of those ingredients [for tornadoes], but it depends on how these ingredients come together.”


TV meteorologist Al Roker said on Monday: “And you know, look – yesterday, or the day before yesterday, we had the tornado in Minneapolis. We have had these tornadoes and earlier this week we had a tornado in Philadelphia. And so, you know, our weather, or climate change, is such now that we are seeing this kind of weather not just in rural parts of our country, but in urban centers as well.”


That comment drew a critical note from Joseph Romm, editor of Climate Progress, a climate-change blog.


“Roker appears to have gone beyond the data with his suggestion that climate change is bringing tornadoes to urban areas,” wrote Romm.


Noting that the Joplin tornado had triggered a “super-storm of media stories on the link between climate change and extreme weather,” Romm, a scientist, cautioned: “When discussing extreme weather and climate, tornadoes should not be conflated with the other extreme weather events for which the connection is considerably more straightforward and better documented, including deluges, droughts, and heat waves.”


Romm, who has long written about climate change and tackled those who deny the climate-change science, added, “Just because the tornado-warming link is more tenuous doesn’t mean that the subject of global warming should be avoided entirely when talking about tornadoes.”


In his blog post about Joplin, Romm cited a communication from Jeff Masters, who holds a doctorate in meteorology. Masters said not enough data was available to explain the current tornado season.


“In my thirty years as a meteorologist, I’ve never seen global weather patterns as strange as those we had in 2010. The stunning extremes we witnessed gives me concern that our climate is showing the early signs of instability. Natural variability probably did play a significant role in the wild weather of 2010, and 2011 will likely not be nearly as extreme,” wrote Masters in December.


“However, I suspect that crazy weather years like 2010 will become the norm a decade from now, as the climate continues to adjust to the steady build-up of heat-trapping gases we are pumping into the air,” wrote Masters.


He continued, “Forty years from now, the crazy weather of 2010 will seem pretty tame. We’ve bequeathed to our children a future with a radically changed climate that will regularly bring unprecedented weather events – many of them extremely destructive – to every corner of the globe. This year’s wild ride was just the beginning.”


What is happening with such wild weather swings and intense tornadoes?


In due season, scientists will have gathered enough data to answer the question that Brian Williams posed about the Joplin tornado.


And when they do, will people of faith listen? Or will some in the faith community continue to nurse a brooding hostility toward science as so many evangelical ministers now do about global warming?


Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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