Climate

‘A Harbinger Of The Future’: Climate Scientists Respond To Boston’s Record-Breaking Snow Season

CREDIT: AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

A man shovels snow in the East Boston neighborhood of Boston, Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015.

When word got around that this winter was Boston’s snowiest ever recorded, a lot of people were thrilled.

“Congratulations Boston!” the National Weather Service tweeted on Sunday, announcing the history-making event. “We are truly a title city,” the city’s mayor wrote.

But for much of the winter, the 108.6 inches of snow Boston got was nothing to celebrate. When the season is over, Boston will have spent $50 million just trying to move snow out of the city. The city’s subway and commuter rail systems were crippled. In apartment buildings, melting snow leaked into the ceilings. Cemeteries could not hold burials. A lot of people lost their dogs. Piles of trash are everywhere.

Scientists expect more of these extremely snowy winters for Boston and the Northeastern United States in the years to come, as sea surface temperatures get warmer and the atmosphere is able to hold more moisture. Both those predicted characteristics are driven by human-made greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change.

ThinkProgress spoke to three climate scientists, and they all agreed — as the planet as a whole warms, Boston is likely to be pummeled with snow.

“Climate projections into the future do project that there will be more extreme rain and snow events in the Northern part of the United States,” said Jack Fellows, director of the Climate Change Science Institute at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “No single storm is a prediction of climate change, but the projections into the future are for there to be more storms like this.”

The 2014 National Climate Assessment lays out these projections pretty well. If carbon emissions are reduced, extreme precipitation events are still expected to occur nearly twice as often by 2100. If emissions increase, however, extreme rain and snowfall events are expected to occur up to four times as often.

More snow may seem counter-intuitive to a global warming scenario. But as climatologist Ilissa Ocko explained, more snow can actually happen with a warmer ocean and atmosphere. A warmer ocean creates more water vapor, and a warmer atmosphere is able to hold more moisture. The atmosphere absorbs the water vapor, and when it can no longer hold the moisture, it forms precipitation. When it’s below freezing, the precipitation is generally snow.

“Any kind of precipitation event, you’d expect to have more — snow or rain,” said Ocko, who works for the Environmental Defense Fund and participates in a campaign called More Than Scientists. “Regardless of whether this specific event is linked to climate change, this still is a harbinger of the future.”

Brad Marston, a physics professor at Brown University who specializes in climate, agreed that more epic precipitation events would likely show themselves in the Northeastern U.S. as the climate warms. And though it’s “too early to know for certain,” he said the possibility that Boston’s snow season itself was made worse by climate change is a question worth asking.

“I think it is appropriate to bring up the possibility that extreme events could be driven by climate change,” Marston said via e-mail. “It is possible that extreme events like the record-breaking snowfalls in New England, and the connected phenomenon of the ‘ridiculously resilient ridge‘ in the west may be related to climate change, but it is too early to know for certain.”

A deep dip in the jet stream causes abnormally warm temperatures in the west, and extreme cold in the east.

A deep dip in the jet stream causes abnormally warm temperatures in the west, and extreme cold in the east.

CREDIT: wqad news 8

Though long-term peer-reviewed studies have to be done before scientists can confidently say a specific weather event like Boston’s snow or California’s drought is linked to climate change, many have speculated that recent extreme weather on both ends of the United States has been climate-driven. Specifically, a growing body of research suggests that deep waves in the jet stream — which have caused extreme heat and drought in the western U.S. and extreme cold in the east — are made worse by a warming Arctic.

Those deep waves in the jet stream have been showing themselves often in recent years, said Tom Di Liberto, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center. For the last three seasons, he said, there’s been a pattern where the jet stream dips across America, bringing high pressure and high temperatures to Alaska and California, and extreme low pressure to the east.

“The pattern set up so perfectly for all these types of storm systems to drop down out of Canada and just pummel New England and Boston with a ton of snow,” he said. “The jet stream has certainly been wavy. To get this stuff we’ve been seeing, it kind of has to be. It’s certainly curious.”