Experts: Climate Change May Make Northeast Winter Storms Worse
The idea of a snow day is becoming less and less appealing as the city and surrounding areas suffer one winter storm after the other.
Snow has been no friend to the Northeast this winter, and as another storm is ready to pummel the Northeast this weekend, climate change experts offer an explanation of why record-breaking amounts of precipitation may become a norm for the region.
"Simple physical laws will tell you that a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture," Dr. David Robinson, a state climatologist at Rutgers University, says. "So it's related to warmer temperatures and more abundant moisture available in the atmosphere, but you still need an impetus. You still need a storm."
This weekend's winter weather and the last few weeks' rash of storms is that exact impetus.
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"Physics basically says that as the atmosphere warms it can hold more water vapor, but also because the atmosphere is warmer, you're getting more evaporation from soils and from the oceans," adds Dr. Wuebbles, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois.
Unluckily for Boston and most of the Northeast, the Atlantic Ocean is the next door neighbor they can't get rid of.
In most circumstances, location alone is enough to explain a natural phenomenon, especially when you look at the Midwest's tornado alley or the West's wildfires, but the added component of climate change creates the perfect combination for extreme, and sometimes deadly, weather.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that sea surface temperatures have been higher during the past three decades than at any other time since observations began in 1880, with temperatures rising at an average rate of 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit every decade.
This blatant fact points directly to climate change.
NOAA also reports that precipitation, including snowfall, has increased at a rate of 0.5 percent per decade.
"When you see a big event like this or like in Chicago…to what degree do you say the planet is warming and you have this additional water vapor available contributing to that?" Dr. Wuebbles asks.
Climate change's effect on weather patterns points to larger and more extreme storms and other weather events.
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Climate change may also be the link between what's occurring in the Northeast and the natural disasters and extreme weather facing other parts of the country.
"The dry are getting drier and the wet are getting wetter. There are these instances of drought in the Southwest and Southeast and more floods in the Midwest and Northeast," Dr. Wuebbles adds.
And things have only gotten worse over time.
"If you start looking at things like extreme precipitation over the last 50 years, there's like a 70% increase in extreme weather events," says Dr. Wuebbles. "So we're getting a large number of precipitation events especially in the Northeast coming as major weather events."
As for the future, climate change may also be behind why increasing snowfall will continue to happen not only in the next couple of years but for decades to come with a contained, much smaller winter season for the Northeast.
"Frankly, we're going to see that for years and years to come, a 20 degree snow storm in a couple of decades may a 25 degree snow storm as long as it's still cold enough to snow," says Dr. Robinson. "And with the warmer atmosphere, I see the chances of heavier snows continuing into the future. But with time, youre going to have occasions where a snow storm from the past is going to become a rain storm because you have crossed that important threshold of the freezing point."
In other words, future winters in the Northeast may turn from snow days to rainy days.
"That's more likely to happen earlier in the season and later in the season, so we may have a little of the winter but in the fall and spring, you should start seeing less snow as former snow events will become rainy."
Shorter and rainier winters won't occur for some time, but climate change remains a growing concern to many, including President Barack Obama, with others hoping for a change that can at least stymie the Northeast's current and future snowstorm pains.
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