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Climate change and a funny little viral map

You’ve probably seen this one making the rounds – The “United States of Shame,” a map that lists off an alarming statistic about each of the 50 states.

For instance, Michigan has the distinction of having the nation’s highest unemployment rate. Illinois, the highest robbery rate. In Wisconsin, it’s the highest rate of binge drinking (no, Wisconsin, you don’t get a trophy for that).

As a recent re-transplant back to Minnesota, I eagerly scanned down the list to find my state. What would we get dinged for? Cold? Mosquitoes? Prince’s entire catalog from 1988 onward?

Ah, here it is: Tornadoes.

Huh?

That seems odd. Everyone knows the worst state in the U.S. for tornadoes is Texas. Or, at least it used to be. From 1953-2004, according to NOAA, Texas averaged 139 tornadoes per year. At 25, Minnesota isn’t even in the top ten.

But in 2010, first prize went to Minnesota, with 145 reported tornadoes compared to only 105 for Texas. It’s the first time Minnesota has ever held that distinction.

Minnesota Public Radio meteorologist (and former colleague) Paul Huttner believes this is because the warming atmosphere is pushing Tornado Alley northward. This isn’t the first time that Texas has lost its tornado crown in recent years – Kansas led the nation in 2005 and 2008, and in 2006, it was Illinois.

NOAA stats show that nearly every state in the Midwest had an especially rough tornado season last year. North Dakota had 68, more than three times the 1953-2004 average.

“As heat and moisture shifts north it is perfectly logical and within the realm of possibility that tornado alley is shifting north into Minnesota,” Huttner wrote in August.

Of course, one year’s storm totals aren’t enough to conclude a long-term trend. But Huttner also points out that Minnesota’s average annual tornado numbers have doubled over the past decade – indicating, at least, a trend toward more intense storms, which climate scientists have long predicted.

Either way, it might not be a bad time to pick out some comfy furniture for the basement. We could be in for another long summer.

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