The Real Reason Why This Week’s Massive Ice Storm Is So Unusual

Lamarr Lewis scrapes ice from his car window during a winter storm on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, in Doraville, Ga. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN AMIS
Lamarr Lewis scrapes ice from his car window during a winter storm on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, in Doraville, Ga. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN AMIS

As the Weather-Channel-dubbed “Winter Storm Pax” barrels across much of the eastern United States this week, the warnings have been just short of apocalyptic. “This is a storm of historical proportions with potentially catastrophic … crippling impacts,” the National Weather Service’s Atlanta office said in a 3:39 a.m. forecast discussion on Wednesday. “Catastrophic… crippling… paralyzing… choose your adjective.”

“If residents have not completed their preparations,” the NWS continued, “it may be too late.”

Indeed, the effects of the storm have already been — pun intended — chilling. As Slate’s meteorologist Eric Holthaus rightfully predicted, the Atlanta area got more than four inches of snow topped by as much as one inch of ice, which can add “thousands of pounds of additional weight to trees and power lines.”

“Add on gusty winds of 20–30 mph, as are also forecasted, and you have a recipe for disaster, with 100-year-old oaks and hickories snapping like matchsticks,” Holthaus writes. “As a result, Wednesday’s storm could have lingering impacts across the region for years, if not decades.”


But the real reason why Winter Storm Pax is unusual is not just the size and the very real potential for disaster, but the fact that that a recent report shows such storms used to occur much more frequently.

These particularly destructive ice storms, according to weather service Weather Underground, “feature heavy ice accumulation, sometimes on the order of several inches, that, when combined with strong winds, bring down trees and power lines, plunge hundreds of thousands into the dark sometimes for several days.”

There is a lack of concrete scientific research pertaining to the frequency and intensity of ice storms, but Weather Underground’s report shows that the most destructive ice storms in American history were, at one point, not so few and far between. Almost all of the similarly predicted ice storms in America happened more than 12 years ago, and all within at least four years of one another. According to that report, nine out of the ten most severe ice storms in the nation happened before 2002, with five of them happening between the years of 1994 and 2002.

The 1994 storm was the second worst ice storm in history, with some areas accumulating six inches of ice. Four years later in 1998, a January storm coated New England and Southeast Canada in as much as three inches of ice.

Then in January 2000, two back-to-back ice storms hit the Atlanta area, accumulating about a half inch of ice and leaving a half million customers without power. Later that year, in December, more than an inch of ice accumulated from northeast Texas into southeast Oklahoma, Arkansas and northern Louisiana. Then in December 2002, another storm coated the southeast states in an inch-thick ice blanket.


Almost all of those ice storms occurred in the south and southeastern United States. But as Winter Storm Pax makes its way to the Northern states on Thursday, it is also expected to accumulate some ice, as heavy snow may eventually be topped with rain later in the day. Unlike the south, ice storms are less frequent in the northern states, where frigid winter temperatures have generally prevented the “not too warm, not too cold” conditions that an ice storm requires.

Storms like Pax give fodder to climate deniers who use winter weather events to make the argument that “it’s freezing outside and you’re whining about warming,” as if a localized weather event is reflective of a long-term global climate shift.

Indeed, the Federalist states that “it’s just silly to pretend that every weather event — no matter how big or small or hot or cold — is somehow related to your crackpot political agenda.” This is actually a statement many climate scientists would agree with. Renowned climate scientist and director of atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia Dr. Marshall Shepherd told ClimateProgress essentially the same thing when asked about the climate connection to Pax. “I am not really a big fan of linking individual events to climate change,” he said. “I like to take a broader view.”

That broader view is simple. The effects of climate change do not all of a sudden make seasonal weather events stop happening. They happen as usual, but are given added fervor by increased moisture in the atmosphere, which is caused by a warming overall climate. As the National Resources Defense Council puts it, “global warming on our climate is not unlike the effect of steroids on an athlete’s performance: It supercharges storms; it causes abnormal conditions like drought and heat and ultimately, it causes damage.”

Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University who is spearheading the polar vortex/climate change connection research, told ClimateProgress she agreed with the assessment.

“This is just a strong winter storm,” Francis said. “Of course, the atmosphere is now charged with more energy via extra heat and moisture than it used to have, so any storm that forms now has more fuel to work with.”


And while Pax brings frigid conditions to parts of the U.S., the global trend is clearly toward warming and several spots across the globe are grappling with unprecedented high temperatures. In Alaska, extremely unseasonable warm weather has destabilized the snowpack that’s there every year, causing a series of a dozen avalanches that buried roads 40 feet deep and hundreds of feet long last month.

Alaska isn’t alone. Greenland has been about 5°C warmer than normal in January. This year’s snow season has shrunk in the northern hemisphere by about three weeks, leaving the people who plan Winter Olympics grappling with how to adapt. Sao Paolo, Brazil is running out of water as it suffered through its hottest month on record in January. And extreme heat rolling through Australia has not just caused tennis tournaments to suspend outdoor play, but also led to a spike in heat-related deaths in Victoria.

As ClimateProgress has pointed out time and again, the differing extremes on a global scale can make climate change difficult to understand, which is why it is more useful to look at long-term warming trends, rather than basing decisions on climate change off one singular storm.