A long-running joke about Tennessee weather has been that if you don't like it, just hang around a few minutes and it will change. But the joke is starting to be not so funny. The extremes of climate change are turning our normal quirky weather changes into extremes. And into extreme killers.
Tornadoes ripped across Tennessee early Tuesday, shredding scores of buildings and killing at least 24 people.
One of the twisters caused severe damage across downtown Nashville. That tornado tracked along a 10-mile stretch and destroyed at least 48 buildings and shattered the stained glass in a historic church. The Associated Press said hundreds of people have been left homeless.
Roofs and walls were torn away from apartment buildings, leaving exposed living rooms and kitchens. Uprooted trees, mangled power lines and damaged cars made oversized litter on streets, sidewalks and parking lots. Schools, courts, transit lines, an airport and the state Capitol were closed Tuesday. Some polling stations had to be moved just hours before Super Tuesday voting began.
In Putnam County, another tornado ravaged a two-mile swath and claimed at least 14 of fatalities.
"It is heartbreaking. We have had loss of life all across the state," said Gov. Bill Lee.
And it's a very early start to spring tornado season
But we're not talking about just one season. Or even just one year.
Thanks to a report by Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Ben Benton with the help of the National Weather Service in Morristown, Tennessee, we know that the last five years of weather in the Chattanooga region has been, in Benton's words, "a roller coaster ride of extremes, ranging from record heat, deadly cold, drought and wildfires to record rain and lethal flooding, with a little ice and snow thrown in for good measure."
These early and deadly tornadoes follow the record rainfall of February. And this year's record February rainfall topped 2019's record February rainfall, which set in motion the Tennessee Valley's second wettest year ever. Spoiler alert: The very wettest year on record is 2018. Ah, our growing calendar of extremes.
Take for instance the whole year of 2019, when weather watchers recorded 17 new weather-related records for Chattanooga, a oddity in itself because 2018 saw just five record-setting days.
Especially not normal was 2019's autumn with a long heat wave that set 13 record high temperatures between Sept. 12 and Oct. 4 — including a string or two of 100 or more-degree days. The last of that heat wave fell during the first week of October. Yeah. October. Then came November with its most severe early cold snap in more than a century, setting record lows that were 20 to 30 degrees below normal over the eastern third of the nation. Memphis saw its coldest fall temperature ever when the mercury there plunged into the upper teens. Chattanooga registered three nights of hard freeze in the 20s.
Along the way over these past several years there were far too many weather-related deaths and lots more property damage. Now we have the exclamation point of these with this week's tornado casualties.
In downtown Nashville early Tuesday morning, some members of Chattanooga's legislative delegation — Todd Gardenhire and Yusuf Hakeem among them — were startled out of their hotel beds at about 1 a.m. by one of the storm's several tornadoes. Gardenhire took shelter in his bathroom after he heard glass shattering in the room next door. He acknowledged: "I wasn't frightened. I was scared." Hakeem awoke to what he thought was a shaking and hissing heating and air conditioning unit: "It was dancing. I thought it was about to blow. Next thing, you have the roaring like a train," he told Times Free Press reporter Andy Sher. As Hakeem ran to the bathroom, small chunks of material were falling from the ceiling.
We're glad they are safe, and our hearts go out to the families of those who were not.
But we must say that we hope our lawmakers' experience highlights for them and all other government officials just how fragile we all are against the forces of nature that we manipulate day in and day out with our past and present poor energy policies.
In December, a new United Nations report offered a grim assessment of just how much the world — and especially America — have squandered the time we have to stave off the worst effects of climate change. We're now so off-track that global temperatures are on pace to rise as much as 3.9 degrees Celsius — that's 7 degrees Fahrenheit — by the end of the century, according to the annual U.N. "emissions gap" report, which assesses the difference between the world's current path and the changes needed to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord.
Under the Paris accord, which President Donald Trump has all but torn up, world leaders had agreed to take actions to try to hold warming to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius. Now our current trajectory is nearly twice the Paris pact's lofty but once-achievable goal.
This is on us. Insurance companies often like to talk about weather damages as "acts of God." Phooey.
These increasing extremes are natural events worsened by our foolish here-today-gone-tomorrow energy policies and wasteful consumption.