Just Explain It: Predicting Weather Disasters

Moore, Oklahoma continues to recover from the two-mile-wide tornado that resulted in tragic deaths and devastated the Oklahoma City suburb last week. The financial cost is still being calculated, but one meteorologist estimates it could be one of the costliest tornadoes in history, with a price tag approaching $3 billion. And he may be right.

[Related: Charities See Influx of Aid in Tornado’s Wake]

That same meteorologist predicted a major hurricane would hit New York City and the U.S. would enter a major drought. That was one year before Hurricane Sandy battered the Northeast and the 2012 drought that rivaled the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.

So, who is this forecaster, and what are his other predictions? That’s the topic of today’s Just Explain It.
 
The meteorologist is Jeff Masters, who co-founded the Weather Underground website. In 2011, he predicted nine weather disasters in the U.S. that would cause $100 billion in damage each in next 30 years. He ranked them based on their potential impact and chose to focus on events that would take a $100-billion-toll because that amount of damage could theoretically cripple the U.S. economy.

[Related: Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert Support Oklahoma at Tornado Benefit Concert]

He recently updated his list to include potential disasters all over the world: hurricanes, a typhoon, floods, droughts, even a change in the direction of the Mississippi River. Topping his list was a volcanic or nuclear winter! While Masters admits that’s unlikely to happen, he says the other $100 billion events are inevitable.
 
One of the predictions is that another hurricane will hit New York City within 30 years. Even after Hurricane Sandy, Masters contends there's still a 10% chance of a major hurricane - shutting down the city and crippling the world's financial markets for weeks or months.

[Related: Just Explain It: Storm Surge]

But he says a drought in the U.S., number five on his 2011 list and number three on his updated list, may have already happened. Last year, drought conditions were in more than two-thirds of the country damaging or destroying crops in the Midwest and sending food prices higher. The final cost hasn’t been determined, but estimates put it between $75 - $150 billion.

The truth is, we can’t be certain Masters is right or wrong. Meteorologist William Gray of Colorado State University's Tropical Meteorology Project says there's always a chance one of these events will happen, but accurate 30-year climate predictions aren’t possible because the atmosphere is too complex and there are too many variables. But AccuWeather senior meteorologist Mike Piggot says science and statistics from past weather events can make long-term predictions reliable.

[Related: ‘Extremely Active’ 2013 Hurricane Season Expected]

So, even with a chance these disasters will happen, is there anything we can do? Masters says reversal of climate change can make these events less severe (with the exception of the volcanic or nuclear winter). Infrastructure can also be constructed to protect lives and property, like building storm surge barriers or strengthening levees that are already in place.

So, while Masters says the weather events are inevitable, their effects are not.
 
Tell us. Did you learn something? What do you think about Masters' predictions? Are you worried about major weather disasters? Give us your feedback in the comments section below, or on Twitter using #JustExplainItNews.
 
 

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