News & Politics

The Real 'Snowpocalypse' Is in Boston—And Yes, Climate Change Is Likely to Blame

Warmer Atlantic air is holding more moisture, and that's why New England is getting dumped on.

Photo Credit: bettlebrox/Flickr

Not one, but two snowstorms are forecast to hit the East Coast this weekend, which will likely pile on to New England’s already insane tally. Boston already has more than 77 inches of snow this winter, and is having a hard enough time digging out from two back-to-back “once-in-a-lifetime” snowfalls.

By anyone’s standards, this seems like an exceptional winter. However, it might become the new normal. That’s because continually rising temperatures are likely fueling these epic snow events.

While the concept of perpetual snow may seem to conflict with rising global temperatures, these storms are considered evidence of climate change by climatologists. Warmer temperatures allow the atmosphere to hold more moisture and create heavier than normal precipitation. Climatologists agree that global warming will continue to make these storms worse over time.

Weather is different from climate. Weather is what we experience on a daily basis; climate is more about long-term trends. While each describes environmental conditions, they’re on different scales of time and space. Climatologists are not in the business of watching daily and regional forecasts, they consider the larger context in which weather operates and describe long-term climate trends and how they relate to ongoing weather events. So, while you can’t attribute any one storm to the effects of climate change, there is a clear trend of more intense storms pointing toward climate change.

Climatologists are looking at two different trends. First, global temperatures are 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were 135 years ago when measurements were first taken with accuracy. Second, what were once epic snow storms are now commonplace. There’s growing belief among climatologists that these two trends are closely related. Blizzards are generated from disturbances at the boundaries between Arctic and tropical air masses. When these fronts collide, and especially when the air mass temperatures are vastly different, it creates storms. The more divergent the air masses, the more likely the resulting storm will be large. So, as our air grows warmer and holds more moisture, the result is a lot more snow when weather fronts meet.

Right now, ocean temperatures off the East Coast are exceptionally warm, some 21 degrees warmer than normal in some areas. “What that means is that this storm will be feeding off these very warm seas, producing very large amounts of snow as spiraling winds of the storm squeeze that moisture out of the air, cool, it, and deposit it as snow inland,” Penn State climate researcher Michael Mann told the Washington Post.

The air's water-holding capacity rises some 7% with each 2 degrees of warming. So with the air off the coast of New England supersaturated with water, such conditions can bring drenching rain falls in warmer months and intense blizzards in the winter.

Scientists are now beginning to wonder if climate change is behind other epic weather events like Buffalo’s epic 7-foot snowfall this past November. There, warmer than usual lake surface temperatures combined with unseasonably strong Arctic winds. While Lake Erie was still very warm, the winds that blew over it were some 50 degrees cooler.  So, it was the collision between two temperature extremes that juiced the lake effect snow that blanketed portions of Western New York.

"Strong snowstorms thrive on the ragged edge of temperature" says Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. "Increasingly, it seems that we're on that ragged edge."

Despite being in agreement that intense weather events are more common because the Earth is warming, scientists are still very careful not to blame climate change on any one specific event without doing intricate studies to see how it may apply to long-term trends. But such events, when they combine to create an overall trend, have scientists agreeing that climate change is responsible for the type of extreme weather events like the ones that Boston has been recently experiencing.

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.

 

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