Tornadoes: Can we save more people than we already do?


Is there a limit where we can no longer technology our way out of natural-disaster related deaths? It's an interesting question. Over the course of the 20th century, we've made big strides in preparing for natural disasters. We have tsunami warning systems, and earthquake-proof buildings. Satellites track hurricanes for days before they reach the coast.

All of these systems save lives, compared to the death tolls before technologic intervention. But they don't make natural disasters risk-free. At the Brain Post blog, Bill Yates has a nice post analyzing scientific data on tornado deaths in the United States, and he comes to some interesting conclusions. First, the post-1980s proliferation of all the First Alert Mega Doppler Radar 5000 Max things your local news station advertises like crazy don't seem to have made a difference in reducing tornado deaths. And second, maybe we can't save more people than we already do—at least not without some major, new discoveries.

Tornado-related deaths have dropped dramatically in the United States but the biggest declines occurred between 1925 and 1980. Between 1875 and 1925, the U.S. averaged nearly two deaths per million residents. Since 1980, the U.S. death rate has averaged around .2 deaths per million people. This is around a 90 per cent decrease and a significant advance in public health safety.

The problem for tornado technology advocates is the trend in tornado-related deaths between 1980 and 2011. Taking a look at the rates of tornado-related deaths per million population finds the following results in the last six decades:


The decline in the 2000s to 1.9 deaths/million/decade is not statistically different than the rate for the decade of the 1980s or the rate for the 1990s decades. The 300 deaths in the recent U.S. tornado is about the number that could be expected over a six year span in the U.S. This suggests the decade of the 2010s is unlikely to show a decrease compared to the rates between 1980 and 2010.

There is some data supporting regional tornado death decreases in the area surrounding new radar installations Additionally, there is some support for increased numbers of residents and mobile homes in the southeastern U.S. potentially contributing to the plateau in number of tornado deaths in the U.S. Nevertheless, it's hard to look at the raw data and feel like tornado detection technology has dramatically reduced the risk of tornado death. Technology has contributed to improvement in many areas of life. Tornado-related deaths in the U.S. have dropped significantly in the U.S. The timing of this decline suggests factors such as improved building safety may have contributed to this public health improvement.

However, the data do no support modern tornado detection and warning technology as major factors in decreasing tornado-related deaths. Without significant new technological advances, it appears a limit has been reached in reducing tornado-related deaths in the U.S.

Image: Lee Celano / Reuters