The blizzard that buried Boston under nearly 2 feet of snow in January 2022 was historic, but not a surprise. Over a century of reliable weather records show many of the Northeast’s heaviest snowfalls have occurred since 1990 – including seven of the top 10 in both Boston and New York.
At the same time, winters in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast have warmed by approximately 4 degrees Fahrenheit (2.2 C) since the late 1800s.
How can the spate of big snowstorms be reconciled with our warming climate? I’m an atmospheric scientist. Let’s look at an important law of physics and some theories that can help explain the changes.
Warmer air, more moisture
First, warmer air can hold more moisture than cold air.
Think of the atmosphere like a sponge. Air holds about 4% more water vapor for each additional degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature (that’s about 7% per degree Celsius). The physical law that explains this relationship is known as the Clausius-Clapyron relation.
This increased atmospheric moisture is helping to intensify the water cycle. The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have become wetter – not just in winter, but in spring, summer and fall, too. In addition to more total precipitation over a season and year, the additional moisture also fuels extreme events, like more intense hurricanes and flooding rains. The Northeast has seen an increase of more than 50% in the heaviest precipitation events in recent decades, the largest increase of any region of the U.S.
In the early 1900s, winters across the Northeast typically averaged around 22 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, 26 degrees is the official new “normal” temperature, defined as the average over 1991-2020. A few recent winters have been over 30.
In the Northeast, then, we have an environment that has warmed yet is often still below freezing. Put another way, regions of the world that are cold enough for snow have warmed enough to now be visited by storms capable of holding and dropping more moisture. Rather than intense downpours like Louisiana has been seeing lately, the region gets heavy snow.
The warming ocean plays a role
The January blizzard was fueled by ocean waters in the western Atlantic that are warmer than normal. That’s also part of a consistent pattern.
The oceans have been absorbing more than 90% of the additional heat attributable to rising atmospheric greenhouse gases from human activities, particularly burning fossil fuels. The oceans now contain more heat energy than any time since measurements began six decades ago.
Scientists are studying whether global warming may be driving a slowing of the ocean conveyor belt of currents that transport water around the globe. Satellite imagery and ocean measurements show that warmer waters have “piled up” along the East Coast, a possible indication of a slowing of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation.
Moisture evaporated from ocean water provides much of the energy for both tropical and mid-latitude extra-tropical cyclones, known commonly as nor’easters.
The Arctic influences the snow pattern, too
While tropical storm systems are fueled primarily by warm water, nor’easters gain energy from sharp temperature gradients where cold and warm air masses meet. The frequency of cold air outbreaks is another aspect of climate change that may be contributing to recent increases in extreme snowfall events.
Recent research has suggested that a warming Arctic, including declines in Arctic sea ice and snow cover, is influencing behavior of the polar vortex, a band of strong westerly winds that forms in the stratosphere between about 10 and 30 miles above the Arctic every winter. The winds enclose a large pool of extremely cold air.
When the Arctic is relatively warm, the polar vortex tends to be weaker and more easily elongates or “stretches,” allowing extremely cold air to dip south. Episodes of polar-vortex stretching have markedly increased in the past few decades, leading, at times, to more severe winter weather in some places.
Scientists Are Very Worried About Antarctica’s Doomsday Glacier:
What is the polar vortex? NASA explains.
Arctic amplification, the enhanced warming to our north, may, paradoxically, be helping to shuttle cold air to the Eastern Seaboard during polar vortex disruptions, where the cold air can interact with warmer, moisture-laden air from the warmer-than-normal western Atlantic Ocean. The most recent stretched polar vortex event helped to bring together key ingredients for the historic blizzard.
Global climate models project an increase in the most extreme snowfall events across large areas of the Northern Hemisphere with future warming. In some other parts of the world, like Western Europe, intensification of the hydrological cycle will mean more winter rain than snow as temperatures rise.
For the east coast of North America, as well as Northern Asia, winter temperatures are expected to still be cold enough for storms to bring heavy snow – at least through mid-century. Climate models suggest that extreme snowfalls will become rarer, but not necessarily less intense, in the second half of the century, as more storms produce rain.
The sharp increase in high-impact Northeast winter storms is an expected manifestation of a warming climate. It’s another risk the U.S. will have to prepare for as extreme events become more common with climate change.
- Bitcoin’s Origins get Well-timed Mention in Elon Musk Tweet
- ‘Our House Is Truly on Fire’: Earth Now Has 50% Chance of Hitting 1.5°C of Warming by 2026
- ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’: Trailer divides critics but did they see 3-D version?
- What is Freedom, Really? – Video Commentary by Robert B. Reich
- A Virtual Lexicon of Trump’s Outrageous behavior recounted in ‘A Sacred Oath’
Lynxotic may receive a small commission based on any purchases made by following links from this page
Health and Diet1 month ago
Adele’s credits her incredible Weight Loss to the Sirtfood Diet – Here are the details…
Apple1 month ago
Ten Insanely Useful New Features in iOS 15: videos of top tips
Books1 month ago
These Books take a Hard look how Climate Change & Capitalism Clash: Earth Day 2022
Crypto4 weeks ago
‘Ethereum is Neutral, I Am Not’ Vitalik Buterin Calls Out Vladimir Putin: Glory to Ukraine
Climate Crisis4 weeks ago
Meet the power plant of the future: Solar + battery hybrids are poised for explosive growth
Elon Musk4 weeks ago
Elon Musk’s Latest Tweet Says it All, or Does it?
Climate Crisis3 weeks ago
Solarpunk: Visions of a just, nature-positive world￼
Climate Crisis1 month ago
Offshore wind farms could help capture carbon from air and store it long-term – using energy that would otherwise go to waste
Climate Crisis1 month ago
The World Must Transition to 200% Renewable Energy Sources: no, that’s not a misprint
Politics1 month ago
How Trump Could Actually Steal the 2024 Election
Apps2 months ago
New Elon Musk tweets Confirm he will not be a Silent Stakeholder: Board Seat Declined
Books1 month ago
Passive House is at the heart the Next Wave of Sustainable Infrastructure