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Washington suffered devastation when an extremely strong off-season tornado hit this month. While scientists can't say for sure climate change will bring more tornadoes like these, they do know tornado seasons are likely to get longer.

Climate change could mean a longer tornado season in Illinois

by Elizabeth McCarthy
Nov 26, 2013

The recent off-season tornadoes that claimed 15 counties as disaster areas may become more commonplace in Illinois as the effects of climate change alter weather patterns in the state, experts warn.

The tornadoes that damaged more than 2,400 homes this November and left eight people dead were  devastating and unusual - both in their severity and because of the time of year they occurred.

“Now most of our tornadoes happen in the springtime and early summer. But we might see more and more of them year round,” said Jim Angel, the Illinois state climatologist.

Angel said there is direct evidence for the potential for more thunderstorms and heavy rain events, but tornadoes are trickier to predict. Tornado season, however, could become longer, he said.

“It is going to get warmer in Illinois. All the models and everything points toward that being the case,” Angel said. “Winter, spring, summer and fall would all be 4 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, and that’s just by mid-century.”

This means Illinois would see much longer summers and much shorter winters, more heat waves and fewer cold waves, Angel said. Models suggest there will be more precipitation in the fall, winter and spring, and less in the summer.

“This is exactly the problem we had this year,” said Angel, noting Illinois saw heavy rains this spring, and relatively little precipitation through July, August and September.

According to the National Weather Service, normally in November there is not enough moisture and warmth to create the right conditions for severe weather including tornadoes and thunderstorms. But with plenty of rain and temperatures near 70 degrees earlier this month, powerful tornadoes tore across the state.

Warming temperatures will affect more than just the weather. Residents and industries will have to adapt. The agricultural industry will obviously feel the impact of climate change. Growing seasons will change with shifts in temperature in precipitation.

Other industries will be affected that may, at first glance, seem immune, such as high volume hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which is coming to Illinois soon. Fracking is a method of removing oil and gas from deep underground by injecting a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals into wells to fracture the rock and release the reserves. 

Operations can be water intensive, and in places such as Southern Illinois, which has experienced drought in recent years, this could become a serious problem with climate change. Environmental groups were anticipating this problem when negotiating the fracking legislation that was adopted in Illinois earlier this year.

“We did have the drought of 2012 in mind, very much, during these negotiations,” on fracking regulations, said Jenny Cassel, an attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago.

The state has proposed draft rules on fracking that regulate industry operations in the state, and are meant to protect against such potential problems as water pollution, air pollution, and water use – critical measures, say environmental groups, in a state where climate change will create increasingly unpredictable and potentially severe weather.