Globe Editorial

In a season of violent weather, prepare, protect — and prevent

May 24, 2011

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WHILE THE rest of the world may have escaped the predicted Rapture over the weekend, residents of Joplin, Mo., endured a disaster of seemingly apocalyptic proportions. The single deadliest US tornado since 1953 tore through the city on Sunday, killing at least 89 people. The twister, nearly 6 miles long and more than a half-mile wide, according to one witness, simply “cut the city in half,’’ destroying hospitals, schools, and churches.

The devastation by this one tornado becomes another data point in this strange season of violent weather — heavy rains, deep snowfalls, monster flooding along the Mississippi River, and now the damage in Joplin. Equally disturbing, but less well-publicized, are other unusual weather patterns such as the flooding in New York and New Jersey, where the Passaic River rose above flood levels, and the drought in the Southwest that costs Texas over $1 million a day to battle wildfires. Throughout the world, nations such as Brazil, Australia, and Pakistan are also contending with unforgiving weather.

The extreme weather carries dramatic consequences for the economy, as prices of commodities from gasoline to food supplies are reaching new highs. River traffic in the Mississippi, the lifeline of a complex barge system delivering commodities such as coal to utilities, is delayed because navigation markers are submerged.

Early preparation and planning has helped save lives. Technology and engineering have made weather predictions more reliable. A mature alert system notified residents of Joplin of an impending danger.

It is also inspiring to hear residents express a determination to rebuild. But that can-do spirit rarely translates into political action. In policy debates about environmental issues, evidence of extreme weather is often dismissed as fleeting anecdotes. But it is hard to ignore the cumulative impact of science, technology, and experience. Last week, an expert panel assigned by Congress in 2008 to recommend ways to deal with climate change provided a sobering analysis of what is at stake: Every ton of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere not only drives up the earth’s temperature, causing potentially disruptive weather events, but raises the cost of taking action later on.

Call it global warming, global weirding, or just a really freaky weather year. If we don’t begin to address the underlying causes of all this killer weather, 2011 may just be the beginning of a very dangerous new normal.