Missouri tornadoes: Global warming may not be the culprit, expert says

A storm-damaged sign stands in a neighborhood after a massive tornado passed through the town killing more than 120 people on May 25, 2011 in Joplin, Missouri.
A storm-damaged sign stands in a neighborhood after a massive tornado passed through the town killing more than 120 people on May 25, 2011 in Joplin, Missouri. Julie Denesha/Getty Images

Global warming may be the culprit for many natural disasters, but it is not necessarily to blame for the vast destruction being faced by residents of Joplin, Mo.

With the death toll now at 125, tornado-ravaged Joplin can attribute much of its devastation to changes in human activity.

Greg Carbin, a warning coordination meteorologist with the Storm Prediction Center, says changes in population density played a significant role in the natural disaster.

“Season and population probably play a much larger role in what we've seen in the last few weeks than global climate change." said Carbin in an interview with Patt Morrison on KPCC today. The meteorologist called these “overriding factors,” and added that the increased prevalence of structures like mobile homes is partially to blame for the devastation in the Mideastern city.

Unfortunately, trailers were not the only man-made structures to be crushed during this natural disaster. The federal economy is also taking a hit.

With an estimated $3 billion in damage, Joplin is waiting on the federal government to approve funds for disaster relief. Yesterday, a House panel proposed $1 billion in relief funds. But Congress will not approve it until House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) finds a way for the federal government to offset spending.

Nikhil da Victoria Lobo, senior vice president of the re-insurance company Swiss Re, says this situation is indicative of the dilemma between public and private liability. Lobo notes that with any natural disaster — like the 2007 California wildfires — economic loss is going to be far greater than insurance loss. “The insurance loss from those wildfires was about $1.1 billion,” Lobo recalled in the interview with Morrison. “But the actual economic loss was about $9 billion,” he added.

According to Lobo, the discrepancy in loss reflects three trends that span the political spectrum. First of all, there is a push for more fiscal responsibility. Globally, he says, there is “the sense that governments should … take a more balanced approached to how money is spent.”

Secondly, Lobo states, governments are simply more constrained, and “don’t have the resources to respond as easily as before.”

Finally, Lobo said, there is an increasing vulnerability of natural disasters and global supply chains — meaning that if disaster strikes Russia, for example, people will have to pay more for hot dog buns in North America.

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