Extreme weather is changing in Oklahoma. What’s causing it?

Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 05/10/2022, 9:04 PM
Edited: 05/13/2022, 4:28 PM

(TULSA, Okla.) Oklahoma weather is wild and unpredictable. So far 2022 has brought winter storms, tornadoes, flooding, and drought that’s contributing to the state’s smallest wheat crop since 2014

VNN sifted through data at Climate Central, an independent organization made up of scientists and journalists reporting on Earth’s climate and climate impact, to find out what else is going on with Oklahoma weather. 

The state’s tornado patterns have definitely been changing. 

Experts at Climate Central say there’s no evidence that shows changes in tornado intensity over the years, but the number of tornado days is actually decreasing. On the flip side, the number of tornadoes per outbreak is increasing. Let’s call this “new tornado variability”. 

Tornadoes are also hitting earlier in the year. Data from the National Weather Service for the last 10 years shows January tornadoes have been on the uptick in Oklahoma, as have tornadoes in October and November. Let’s call this “new tornado months”.  

These two changes have different causations. 

Climate Central experts say the “new tornado months” are the result of an increase in warm and moist ground level air, one of the three ingredients needed to produce a tornado, during those times. (The other two ingredients are cool and dry air above, and wind shear.) 

No surprise there, as warm air is increasing worldwide. In fact, NASA and NOAA say temperatures in 2020 were the second hottest on record, behind 2014.

Their research shows humans have caused global warming, in addition to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But have humans caused tornado climate change? The data just isn’t there. 

At least not regarding “new tornado variability”. Experts at the NOAA say the latest data available on springtime variability points more to changes in rotation potential than energy potential, which they say was not the expected signature of a warming climate. 

If it seems like there are a lot of uncertainties, it’s because there are. Science is the attempt to make sense of it all.

Local experts like Steve Piltz, National Weather Service Tulsa Meteorologist in Charge, remind us that scientists are constantly pulling in new data, and technology is always changing. 


“There is a lot that's unknown about the science, and I don't think that a lot of people are okay with that because they just want certainty and they want answers,” Piltz said. 

Piltz said the answers scientists offer are the most likely outcomes out of a range of possibilities. 

“Part of the human nature is not to like a lot of change, and so when you see a lot of change happen, you're like, none of, this makes sense to me,” Piltz said. “Especially when it's not your passion to get into it. I just want to know an answer so I can go about my life.”  

Piltz said he believes there needs to be stronger understanding and better skills in the scientific realm when communicating with the public. 

“Sometimes scientists will make a mistake of making a very deterministic statement, ‘This is what it looks like’,” Piltz said. “But what they really meant was our data right now shows were trending this way, but there's still multiple ways for things to work out. And so we need to take on a range of possibilities. When you give folks a range of possibilities and you're showing that you're not trying to promote one particular idea or another, you're showing that you understand there's uncertainty.” 

Piltz said he and others at NWS Tulsa are not climatologists, scientists who study the longer-range patterns of climate change, but he has observed some definite changes in our area.

Like an increase in heat.

“We're not seeing huge changes in the daytime temperature as much as we are the morning low temperatures,” Piltz said. “The morning low temperatures have tended to be warmer over the last few years, while the daytime high temperatures had not been really one way or the other.” 

Piltz said an increase in humidity is also making the heat harder to handle. 

Part of what we've seen that that makes the summer so bad is not so much that we're getting to 110 degrees, but we're getting to 100 degrees with high humidity,” Piltz said. “Making the heat index feel like it’s 110 degrees or 115 degrees.” 

The humidity also drives higher temperatures after the sun goes down. Bad news for people who enjoy a nighttime reprieve from the hot summer heat. 

Piltz said that humidity increase could be ocean-related, relating to heat content in the Gulf that comes up during the strong south wind days. 

While there’s a possibility that Earth could be naturally warming on its own, the scientific community has reached a consensus: humans have been making it worse. 

Human activities are estimated to have increased the Earth’s global average temperature by 1.8°F since the pre-industrial revolution, and they’re still driving it up at the rate of 0.36°F per decade. 

As the link between warmer temperatures and all modes of extreme weather becomes more evident, climatologists continue to sound the alarm. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been assessing the science related to climate change since 1988. One of their latest reports states they’ve seen increased evidence of climate action across the globe, like decreases in solar and wind energy and costs, laws that enhance energy efficiency and reduced rates of deforestation.   

But, the panel says, to limit warming to 2.7°F and further potential weather extremes, more action needs to be taken to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and methane. And soon. 

Have you noticed any changes in Oklahoma weather? Let us now in the comments below! 


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