The Midwest United States recently experienced 100 tornadoes in 24 hours. However, unlike the devastating tornadoes that this region has witnessed in the past, these series of natural disasters were much less threatening to human life. What appears to be happening is better monitoring and information around extreme weather which is helping people better prepare for the impacts.

A thumbnail description for why Tornadoes occur is a collision of two distinct atmospheric conditions: warm, moist air at ground level and a jet stream-driven body of cooler air above.

While tornadoes have not been a large concern for Canadian provinces, they are a ubiquitous phenomenon in Mid-Western states of the U.S. In 2011, 550 people in the U.S. and more than 150 in Joplin, Missouri, alone were killed by tornadoes. 2011 was the fourth deadliest year on record.

As reported by Oklahoma Governor Sam Brownback, people took the warnings this past weekend seriously. Normally, there is a short time frame for notices (2 hours for instance) whereas this time around there was two-day advance notice.

The article reports that forecasters issued their first warning on Friday, predicting a tornado outbreak that had the potential of being a “high-end, life-threatening event” for a swath of the Midwest. Using language such as ‘high end’ and ‘life-threatening’ was done to highlight the dangerous nature of these disasters which have delivered a large number of deaths in the past.

The National Weather Service also used a statement such as “this is a life-threatening situation. You could be killed if not underground or in a tornado shelter”. Evidently, this language has been effective in getting people to take more protective measures and ultimately minimize their exposure to the tornadoes.  The National Weather Service will continue to use this new language system for the next 6 months in states such as Kansas and Missouri to see whether its impact remains effective.

In addition to the use of new language, it appears people living in Midwestern states have become more aware of the risks surrounding tornadoes. Residents are increasingly using their cameras and video recorders to document these events. The article reports that part of the reason why this past weekend’s 99 storms were not as dangerous may be due to the fact that the Storm Prediction Center issued a dire warning days ahead of the storm.

Early warning systems are an important adaptation action in terms of giving people enough notice to prepare for an event. Adaptation scholar Stephané Hallegatte confirms this in his accessible 2009 paper titled Strategies to adapt to an uncertain climate change.

Early warning systems deserve more attention from governments faced with risks from natural disasters – whether flooding, tornadoes or earthquakes. As evidenced in the NY Times article, early warning systems can be immensely powerful. What is even more valuable about the article is the use of communication through the National Weather Service’s new ominous language. While this may seem like a trivial task, people may feel more inclined to adapt when the language and science is clearer to them.

We will continue to report on the importance of early warning systems and the rise of communication techniques being used in climate adaptation.

Written by ACT researcher Timothy Shah