There is a difference between weather and climate change, you see, and one meteorologist spoke up on Twitter Thursday after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez freaked out about a tornado watch in Washington, D.C. The freshman congresswoman live-streamed herself reacting to the threat on her Instagram account.
Her camera panned to a window to show the falling rain outside and then she expressed concern for some people finding shelter at a bus stop. “Oh no, there are people stuck outside. We have to get them out. This is crazy.” They didn’t look “stuck”, though. They looked like they were waiting for a bus.
A tornado watch, issued by the National Weather Service was tweeted 2:47 PM Thursday afternoon for the D.C. area. A watch means conditions are favorable for a particular weather event, while a warning means be prepared to move to a protected area. A warning is issued when a tornado, for example, has been spotted in the sky or radar shows intense low-level rotation. In other words, a person should pay attention to weather conditions and be cautious under a watch (don’t panic) but if a warning is issued, that is the time to act.
Tornado Warning including Washington DC, Arlington VA, Hyattsville MD until 4:15 PM EDT pic.twitter.com/HRYRLy2VUu
— NWS DC/Baltimore (@NWS_BaltWash) May 23, 2019
So, what AOC was seeing outside from her window was a heavy rainstorm. While unusual for the D.C. area, she didn’t really need to panic. If it was a tornado warning, she should have moved away from the window, too. The people at the bus stop were not in danger.
She tied the unusual weather alert to climate change. Of course she did.
The Green New Deal advocate then shared a story published by PBS in March questioning if climate change makes tornadoes worse and put emphasis on a quote from the piece that read, “Rather than lie squarely in the Great Plains, America’s tornadoes appear to be sliding into the Midwest and Southeast.”
“Tornadoes are challenging to link to climate change links due to their nature (geographically, limited, acute patterns, how they form, etc.),” Ocasio-Cortez told her followers as she reviewed the article. “But we DO know that tornadoes HAVE been changing. They are no longer being limited to the Great Plains, and are shifting to other regions of the country.”
“The climate crisis is real y’all … guess we’re at casual tornadoes in growing regions of the country,” she later wrote on Instagram.
A meteorologist spoke up and said, wait a minute, a weather event isn’t proof of climate change. He explained that a weather event is not the same as climate change, the two terms are not necessarily compatable.
The Congresswoman @AOC does not know the difference between weather and climate.
Let's try an easy analogy:
Weather is what outfit you wear heading out the door.
Climate is your closet wardrobe. pic.twitter.com/mmdLr6F2mD
— Ryan Maue (@RyanMaue) May 24, 2019
The PBS article that AOC referenced in her Instagram story doesn’t concur that increased tornado activity is the result of climate change. Tornado activity can happen in places other than what is normally considered Tornado Alley, not just Great Plains states. States in the midwest also experience tornadoes, as do states in the South. There is a Dixie Alley developing due to increased water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, tornado patterns are changing but the reason is inconclusive. The scientific community isn’t ready to blame it on climate change.
As North America moves from winter to spring to summer, the conditions become primed for warm and cold fronts to smash into each other, and cause tornadoes.
But in recent springs, the Gulf of Mexico has been behaving abnormally, Kottlowski said.
“The water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico have been running warmer than normal, not only overall during the last several years, but particularly during this time of the year — as we come out of winter into the springtime,” Kottlowski said. “When you have warm water, you’re creating a setup that is going to highly influence the development of violent weather across the South early in the season.”
But tornado patterns are too small to explore deeply in the global computer models meant to simulate huge sections of the planet.
“There’s a lot of interest nowadays in how climate change is going to affect aspects of weather, especially extreme weather — whether it’s droughts, heat waves, floods or hurricanes,” Tippett said, adding that if you had to rank where the scientific research is certain or uncertain, tornadoes sit at the top of the uncertainty list.
It looks to me that this can be a learning experience for the congresswoman, if she chooses to let it be one. She can go back and read the PBS article to find differing opinions on the cause and effect of tornadoes. Severe weather can be scary, no doubt about that, but knowing when to panic is important.