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Winds of Change in Tornado Valley

Tornadoes still have great power to wreak havoc, but new research reveals we may be getting them under control. James Harrison investigates.

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Tornadoes are unfortunately a common occurrence in the United States, but 2014 saw the quietest start of the year for tornadoes by far. However, this run of luck has now ended.

On 28 April, a series of tornadoes hit Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee during the night; part of a powerful storm system that has threatened large areas of the South with more twisters, severe thunderstorms, damaging hail and flash floods. The overall death toll was at least 28. Beyond this tragic human loss, these storms and tornadoes have also left the areas affected with tremendous economic costs.

The example of a chicken farm in the state of Mississippi may best sum up just how totally destructive a tornado can be for a business that lies directly in its path. Monday's tornado tore through eight aluminium and wood structures, which each housed 28,5000 birds. Farm owner Charles Wilkes estimates his loss at about $1.5mn in chicken houses alone, even before the 220,000 dead chickens littering his property are taken into consideration.

On a wider scale, the economic costs can amount to billions of dollars. In 2011, tornadoes wreaked over $25bn of damage to the US, including $2bn to Oklahoma City alone. However, recent evidence suggests such headline figures are increasingly becoming the exception rather than the rule. The Wall Street Journal reports a study of almost 58,000 tornadoes since 1950 by Dr. Roger Pielke, Dr. Kevin Simomns, and Dr. Daniel Sutter.

The study revealed that the average cost of the a nnual hurricane season has fallen from $7.6nn to $4.1bn. There are fewer large tornadoes as well; between 1950 and 1970, the U.S. had fifteen tornado seasons costing more than $5bn to the economy, whereas between 1993 and 2013, there were only four.

However, the 2011 season reveals an extra note of caution; large tornadoes can, and do, happen. Dr. Pielke recommends further research on this matter, pointing to a UN panel on intergovernmental climate change which concluded that the quality of available data means that "low confidence" should be placed in these trends.

The problem lies partially in the inherently random nature of tornadoes. Unlike storms, they carve what appears to be an almost random path of destruction when they reach land, obliterating one part of a town or neighbourhood, while leaving others unscathed. Tornadoes can also occur any time of year - all it takes is the right conditions. It varies by location, but the biggest hotspots are in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Florida, and Nebraska, thouygh storms still wreak havoc across the breadth of the Eastern seaboard.

Their random destruction will go on unchanged, but it seems that better measures to prepare for tornadoes, and in dealing with their aftermaths, are starting to have an effect. There are winds of change in tornado valley, though not without some large storms still.

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