ScienceWhy a Warming Climate Can Bring Bigger Snowstorms

Why a Warming Climate Can Bring Bigger Snowstorms


The next essay is reprinted with permission from The ConversationThe Dialog, a web based publication overlaying the most recent analysis.

Most of the Northeast’s heaviest snowfalls in over a century of dependable document protecting have occurred since 1990. How can the spate of massive snowstorms be reconciled with our warming local weather?

I’m an atmospheric scientist. Let’s take a look at an vital regulation of physics and a few theories that may assist clarify the adjustments.

Winter temperatures are rising in the US Northeast chart.
Credit score: The Dialog US (CC-BY-ND); Supply: NOOAA/NCEI

Hotter air, extra moisture

First, hotter air can maintain extra moisture than chilly air.

Consider the ambiance like a sponge. Air holds about 4% extra water vapor for every extra diploma Fahrenheit enhance in temperature (that’s about 7% per diploma Celsius). The bodily regulation that explains this relationship is named the Clausius-Clapyron relation.

This elevated atmospheric moisture helps to accentuate the water cycle. The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have grow to be wetter—not simply in winter, however in spring, summer time and fall, too. Along with extra whole precipitation over a season and 12 months, the extra moisture additionally fuels excessive occasions, like extra intense hurricanes and flooding rains. The Northeast has seen an enhance of greater than 50% within the heaviest precipitation occasions in current a long time, the most important enhance of any area of the U.S.

Within the early 1900s, winters throughout the Northeast usually averaged round 22 levels Fahrenheit. Now, 26 levels is the official new “regular” temperature, outlined as the typical over 1991-2020. Just a few current winters have been over 30.

Within the Northeast, then, now we have an atmosphere that has warmed but is usually nonetheless under freezing. Put one other manner, areas of the world which might be chilly sufficient for snow have warmed sufficient to now be visited by storms able to holding and dropping extra moisture. Quite than intense downpours, the area will get heavy snow.

The warming ocean performs a job

The historic blizzard that buried Boston beneath almost 2 toes of snow in January 2022 was fueled by ocean waters within the western Atlantic which might be hotter than regular. That’s additionally a part of a constant sample.

Boston's and New York's biggest snow storms.
Credit score: The Dialog US (CC-BY-ND); Supply: Nationwide Climate Service

The oceans have been absorbing greater than 90% of the extra warmth attributable to rising atmospheric greenhouse gases from human actions, notably burning fossil fuels. The oceans now comprise extra warmth vitality than any time since measurements started six a long time in the past.

Scientists are finding out whether or not international warming could also be driving a slowing of the ocean conveyor belt of currents that transport water across the globe. Satellite tv for pc imagery and ocean measurements present that hotter waters have “piled up” alongside the East Coast, a potential indication of a slowing of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation.

Moisture evaporated from ocean water supplies a lot of the vitality for each tropical and mid-latitude extra-tropical cyclones, identified generally as nor’easters.

The Arctic influences the snow sample, too

Whereas tropical storm methods are fueled primarily by heat water, nor’easters acquire vitality from sharp temperature gradients the place chilly and heat air plenty meet. The frequency of chilly air outbreaks is one other side of local weather change which may be contributing to current will increase in excessive snowfall occasions.

Latest analysis has advised {that a} warming Arctic, together with declines in Arctic sea ice and snow cowl, is influencing habits of the polar vortex, a band of robust westerly winds that types within the stratosphere between about 10 and 30 miles above the Arctic each winter. The winds enclose a big pool of extraordinarily chilly air.

When the Arctic is comparatively heat, the polar vortex tends to be weaker and extra simply elongates or “stretches,” permitting extraordinarily chilly air to dip south. Episodes of polar-vortex stretching have markedly elevated up to now few a long time, main, at instances, to extra extreme winter climate in some locations.

Arctic amplification, the improved warming to our north, might, paradoxically, be serving to to shuttle chilly air to the Jap Seaboard throughout polar vortex disruptions, the place the chilly air can work together with hotter, moisture-laden air from the warmer-than-normal western Atlantic Ocean. The newest stretched polar vortex occasion helped to carry collectively key substances for the historic blizzard.

What’s forward?

International local weather fashions mission an enhance in probably the most excessive snowfall occasions throughout giant areas of the Northern Hemisphere with future warming. In another elements of the world, like Western Europe, intensification of the hydrological cycle will imply extra winter rain than snow as temperatures rise.

For the east coast of North America, in addition to Northern Asia, winter temperatures are anticipated to nonetheless be chilly sufficient for storms to carry heavy snow—at the least by way of mid-century. Local weather fashions counsel that excessive snowfalls will grow to be rarer, however not essentially much less intense, within the second half of the century, as extra storms produce rain.

The sharp enhance in high-impact Northeast winter storms is an anticipated manifestation of a warming local weather. It’s one other danger the U.S. must put together for as excessive occasions grow to be extra widespread with local weather change.

This text was initially revealed on The Dialog. Learn the unique article.


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