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America’s Tornadoes Are Evolving, Fast

Varying weather conditions are causing new, troubling patterns

The U.S. is experiencing devastation from a flurry of tornadoes. At least five people died Wednesday when a tornado tore through southeastern Missouri. It followed six in New Jersey and one in Delaware that killed a person and became the state's widest on record. Batches of tornadoes killed more than 30 people in the Midwest and South over the weekend. And January saw 168 preliminary tornado reports, nearly five times that month’s average between 1990 and 2010.

It's been a busy and deadly start to tornado season, and the twisters have hit regions typically spared. We know that a warming climate is creating moisture and instability in the air—two factors that spur the formation of tornadoes. But experts caution that it is too soon to link one major event—or even season—to climate change. What they are seeing is changes in when and where the tornadoes strike, which could expose more people to danger.

"We are still very unsure what the future holds," said Jana Houser, a professor of meteorology at Ohio State University. Meteorologists can look at increased humidity and warming, along with changes in the jet stream, and see how they may affect the storms that cause tornadoes. But, Houser said, "we really cannot pinpoint what we expect to see in terms of when and where tornadoes are going to occur."

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