Historic Blizzard Poised to Strike New England: What Role Is Climate Change Playing?

An epic blizzard is bearing down on New England — fed in part by relatively warm coastal waters.

I asked Dr. Kevin Trenberth, former head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, to comment on the role climate change has on this storm. He explained:

  1. This is a perfect set up for a big storm, with the combination of two parts: a disturbance from the Gulf region with lots of moisture and a cold front from the west.
  2. Ingredients for a big snow storm include temperatures just below freezing. In the past temperatures at this time of year would have been a lot below freezing but the ability to hold moisture in the atmosphere goes down by 7% per degree C (4% per deg F), and so in the past we would have had a snow storm but not these amounts.
  3. The moisture flow into the storm is also important and that is enhanced by higher than normal sea surface temperatures (SSTs). These are higher by about 1 deg C [almost 2°F] than a normal (pre-1980) due to global warming and so that adds about 10% to the potential for a big snow.

Every storm and “event” is unique. It always has unique ingredients. So it is hard if not impossible to take apart, because any piece missing means the storm behaves differently. So event attribution is not well posed. Instead we look for the environment in which the storm is occurring and how that has changed to make conditions warmer and moister over the oceans.

Like a baseball player on steroids, our climate system is breaking records at an unnatural pace. And like a baseball player on steroids, it’s the wrong question to ask whether a given home run is “caused” by steroids. As Trenberth wrote in his must-read analaysis, “How To Relate Climate Extremes to Climate Change,” the “answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”

On the warmer SSTs, Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman explains:

As was the case when Hurricane Sandy struck in late October, sea-surface temperatures are running a couple degrees above average off the East Coast, which according to climate scientists may reflect both natural climate variability and the effects of manmade global warming.

The presence of unusually warm waters could aid in the rapid development of the storm system, and infuse it with additional moisture, thereby increasing snowfall totals.

Heavy precipitation events in the Northeast, including both rain and snowstorms, have been increasing in the past few decades, in a trend that a new federal climate report links to manmade global climate change. As the world has warmed, more moisture has been added to the atmosphere, giving storms additional energy to work with, and makingprecipitation extremes more common in many places.

Sea surface temperature anomalies off the East Coast. Credit Wunderground/NOAA via CC.

The blizzard is also pulling in an extraordinary amount of moisture, which is consistent with recent trends in the Northeast toward more frequent one-day precipitation extremes during the cold season, including snowstorms. The satellite-derived image of total precipitable water shows that the storm has been drawing tropical moisture from the Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean

Trenberth’s second point is an important one — warmer than normal winters favor snow storms (See “We get more snow storms in warm years“). A 2006 study, “Temporal and Spatial Characteristics of Snowstorms in the Contiguous United States” found we are seeing more northern snow storms and that we get more snow storms in warmer years:

The temporal distribution of snowstorms exhibited wide fluctuations during 1901-2000…. Upward trends occurred in the upper Midwest, East, and Northeast, and the national trend for 1901-2000 was upward, corresponding to trends in strong cyclonic activity….

Assessment of the January-February temperature conditions again showed that most of the United States had 71%-80% of their snowstorms in warmer-than-normal years….  a future with wetter and warmer winters, which is one outcome expected (National Assessment Synthesis Team 2001), will bring more snowstorms than in 1901-2000. Agee (1991) found that long-term warming trends in the United States were associated with increasing cyclonic activity in North America, further indicating that a warmer future climate will generate more winter storms.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) U.S. Climate Impacts Report from 2009 reviewed that literature and concluded, “Cold-season storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent.

So it is no surprise that a 2012 study found extreme snowstorms and deluges are becoming more frequent and more severe. Freedman points out:

For the northern hemisphere as a whole, winter storms have become more common and intense during the past 50 years, according to the draft federal report. Observed changes in winter air circulation in the northern hemisphere, possibly related to Arctic sea ice loss, has been linked to large swings in seasonal snowfall from one winter to the next in the Northeast. Other studies indicate that as global warming continues, nor’easters such as the one about to hit New England may become more frequent in this region, and less common in the Mid-Atlantic states, as storm tracks shift closer to the poles.

Again, the Northeast has been especially vulnerable to deluges and Snowmaggedons, experiencing a sharp increase in one-day precipitation extremes during the October to March cold season:

The other big impact of global warming on the destructiveness of superstorms like this (and Sandy) is sea level rise:

The coastal flooding threat for this storm in New York pales in comparison to what it was during Hurricane Sandy, when large parts of the city’s iconic subway system flooded in the face of a record storm surge, and many New Yorkers drowned in flood waters.

Rising sea levels due to warming seas and melting ice caps are already making typical nor’easters such as the upcoming event more damaging, since they provide the storms with a higher launching pad for causing coastal flooding. According to the draft National Climate Assessment report released in January, even without any changes in storms, the chance of what is now a 1-in-10-year coastal flood event in the Northeast could triple by 2100, occurring once every 3 years, due to rising sea levels.

According to research by Climate Central scientists, the sea level trend in Boston Harbor from 1959 to 2008 in Boston Harbor has been 2.31 milimeters per year, which is slightly below the global average over the same period. In the past 50 years, the water level has risen by about 4.5 inches at that location, although it has increased much more in other spots along the northeastern coast.

On Nantucket Island, where coastal flooding is anticipated from this storm along with hurricane-force winds, the sea level has risen by about half a foot during the past 50 years.

People should take the weather forecasts of this storm seriously and act accordingly.

Similarly, the nation should take seriously the climatic projections of ever worsening storms from global warming — and act accordingly.

23 Responses to Historic Blizzard Poised to Strike New England: What Role Is Climate Change Playing?

  1. Paul Magnus says:

    gosh, the NE is just getting hammered by Global Warming year after year. I think that this was all a bit unexpected.

  2. Nell says:

    Dr. Hansen needs to retitle his book
    ‘Storms of my golden years’?

  3. Henry says:

    PLEASE be careful here with the attribution! I’m a 60 year old Bostonian and this is being described, locally, as a “Classic Nor’easter”, as in “We’ve been here before” (historical precedent many times).
    If we overplay the AGW card on this one we’ll be hearing it from the deniers for weeks afterward!

  4. Paul Klinkman says:

    Only one inch here, so far. Main roads are wet, untreated side streets are slippery. Providence is at this time in the 2+ foot zone. They’re expecting 2-3 inches an hour, which will overwhelm the plows on all but the main arteries. Traffic is banned at 4:00 p.m.

    I’ve seen a mega-gas station out of regular and people were still lining up just for premium. Right down the road I found another gas station at about the same price, no line at all.

    Scattered power outages from the wind are forecast here. Outages wiil get much worse toward Cape Cod where a bad load of heavy wet snow will stick to trees and then the wind pushes on them. Not a good combination in subfreezing windy weather, as too many fossil-fuel furnaces require electricity to work. Hurricane-force gusts are predicted for Nantucket. Cape Cod could see 70 mph gusts.

  5. Joe Romm says:

    That’s why I didn’t make “attribution” — a term that has in any case causes too much confusion as I explain in the article. The term should be perhaps “contribution.”

    And in case you haven’t noticed, the deniers never stop their disinformation — when the politico-enviro stopped pushed AGW for 2 years, they got even louder.

    When I write something incorrect, let me know.

  6. Joe Romm says:

    That’s a good one! But he was talking about the storms it wasn’t too late to stop.

  7. Paul Klinkman says:

    They didn’t name this historic blizzard “Omen” (Nemo spelled backwards) for nothing.

  8. Artful Dodger says:

    James Hansen’s grandkids would be about what, 16-17 yrs old now? The future is here.

  9. Paul Klinkman says:

    A warmer than normal tropics combined with a typically cold Arctic (with no sunshine at all, it’s typically cold up there!) creates more powerful gradients, which wrings more moisture out of the atmosphere. There’s a positive feedback loop whenever a storm bombs out off the coast, so a small increase in the feedback loop creates a much more powerful storm.

    Also, the stronger the storm, the better its ability to pull cold Arctic air down underneath its high-level rain/snow shield. Our surface wind is from the northeast turning to the north, even as our moisture flow aloft is from the south. So, stronger storms get below freezing more successfully.

  10. Anne says:

    It took Congress a slow and painful one hundred days to get federal disaster relief money to the northeastern states hit hard by Superstorm Sandy — the first tranche is just now going out the door to the states to provide relief to victims. What if this big snowstorm also ends up qualifying for disaster relief? And perhaps then there’s another storm, and then another, trampling the same region repeatedly? And then summer comes, and “dust bowl” states apply for relief from severe drought. Then more major hurricanes. “Acting accordingly” will require planning and preparation. We need a comprehensive national plan for providing weather- and climate-related disaster relief, and to step up our efforts to avoid and mitigate loss-of-life and property damage BEFORE the harsh weather arrives.

  11. Paul Magnus says:

    Dont forget context and trend also. Regions just getting hammered with ‘new’ and extreme weather patterns.

  12. Paul Magnus says:

    I think we have reach some sort of threshold here…

  13. ZoeyKay says:

    They’ll be fine up there – they’ve dealt with worse before. I still remember the blizzard of 1996 – 3 feet of snow fell in less than 24 hours in NJ. We spent the next day shovelling out, and life went on.

  14. Paul Klinkman says:

    Update: Heavy snow, high wind here, the lights flickered for one second twice. As always, climate change isn’t about one instance, unless it’s your instance.

  15. PeterM says:

    I am in eastern Connecticut and at present (8:25pm) we are getting pummeled- whiteout conditions. I would day 2 feet is likely- high winds- snow accumulating 3-5″ an hour-

  16. MBS says:

    I have read previously that a persistent blocking high over Greenland/Iceland as the arctic warms becomes a huge issue. I don’t know if this is a factor in this system, but it does spell trouble for the curvature of future storms into the NE.

  17. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    And to pay these disaster relief bills without the benefit of revenue increases the government will have to do some budget shuffeling. Perhaps they can end fossil fuel subsidies; shift funding away from defense; bring home the troops; close overseas military bases; defund exhorbitantly expensive and needless weapons systems; and…. oh, wait…. someone’s knocking at the front door. I’ll be right back……….

  18. SecularAnimist says:

    Henry wrote: “this is being described, locally, as a Classic Nor’easter”

    More like a Romantic Nor’easter.

    Like, you know, if a Classic Nor’easter was Mozart’s “Magic Flute”, this would be Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung”.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Even when weather records are broken, or smashed, the Rightwing denialist hardcore either lie, and invent their own records or just assert that historical records only go back a little in history, so there is nothing to get concerned about. I rather like seeing the denialist gibberers getting excited-it increases my admiration for other primates.

  20. john c. wilson says:

    You are on the right track. Watch Jennifer Francis’ latest video lecture on youtube. I’m afraid we will have to see the same frontal system reinstall itself on the same track quite a few times before the message sinks in.

  21. Liz Betit says:

    I don’t think climate change had any thing to do with it. I am a life long Mainer, THIS was a normal winter storm of my childhood. The fact that New England and Maine has NOT experienced very many of these storms over the last 10-15 yrs., now THAT’s an affect of global warming….

  22. Ozonator says:

    Future generations be warned! An AGW monster blizzard without Evil Inhofe bravely throwing himself in front of TV cameras and “hoaxing” snowplows is like a Dr. Seuss story with out star-belly Sneetches.

  23. Susan Van Kleef says:

    Liz, I think that you missed Joe’s point entirely. There is a contribution from global warming that makes this storm more intense. The entire storm is not due to global warming. Look at the tend presented in the graph. Down here in Connecticut after October 2011, Irene, Lee, and Sandy there is nothing “normal” about the weather.