In 2001, global warming meant fewer major snowstorms with some scientists even predicting the end of snow, but in 2015 global warming means more major snowstorms.
Some scientists are now saying global temperature rises will lead to more massive snowstorms like the one that covered Boston in several feet of snow this week — a complete turnaround from what climate scientists were saying just a few years ago.
In 2001, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that “milder winter temperatures will decrease heavy snowstorms.” The IPCC doubled down on this claim in 2007, saying that “a growing number of case studies of larger settlements indicate that climate change is likely to increase heat stress in summers while reducing cold-weather stresses in winter.”
“It is likely to change precipitation patterns and water availability, to lead to rising sea levels in coastal locations, and to increase risks of extreme weather events… although some kinds of extreme events could decrease, such as blizzards and ice storms,” the IPCC found in 2007.
But that was global warming. This is climate change, and climate change causes more severe snowstorms.
A recent study from the Massachusetts Institute for Technology found that while warming could mean less overall snowfall in a year, it could drive more major blizzards in places like New England.
“Most studies have been about how much snow falls in a season or in a year and call that average snowfall. But of course, in terms of disruption to society or economic disruption, we’re also interested in heavy snowfalls,” Paul O’Gorman, a climate scientist at MIT, told the Boston Globe.
“In some regions, fairly cold regions, you could have a decrease in the average snowfall in a year, but actually an intensification of the snowfall extremes,” O’Gorman said.
O’Gorman argued that snowfall will become increasingly rare in milder regions of the world, but cold regions like New England could see more extreme snowstorms because of increases in water vapor in the atmosphere or because of shifts in weather patterns.
“Sea surface temperatures off the coast of New England right now are at record levels, 11.5C (21F) warmer than normal in some locations,” Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann told the Washington Post. “There is [a] direct relationship between the surface warmth of the ocean and the amount of moisture in the air. 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.”
“Heavy snows mean the temperature is just below freezing, any cooler and the amount would be a lot less,” echoed Kevin Trenberth, a climate researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
“Warmer waters off the coast help elevate winter temperatures and contribute to the greater snow amounts. This is how global warming plays a role,” Trenberth said.
But not all scientists agree. The University of Alabama, Huntsville climate scientist Dr. Roy Spencer says claims that increased water vapor is creating more extreme blizzards in New England doesn’t hold water.
Spencer’s analysis of the data found “no relationship between available water vapor and snowstorm events over the last 27 years.”
“In fact, while warm season water vapor has increased, cold season water vapor (if anything) has decreased on average over the region, making less vapor available for storms,” Spencer wrote in his blog.
“There is always abundant water vapor available for U.S. snowstorms to feed off of, just as there is always abundant tropical water vapor available for hurricanes and typhoons,” Spencer said. “But that’s not the limiting factor in storm formation. What is necessary is the variety of conditions which can support the formation of low pressure centers….sufficient water vapor is usually ready and waiting to play its part.”
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