Climate change could actually make lake-effect snowstorms worse
- Scientists say extreme weather events could happen more often or be more intense as Earth’s climate changes.
- Average air temperatures have been warming across the planet for decades,
- The researchers report that the region has seen some of the largest increases in snowfall in the country and may continue to see these increases in the future.
A white Christmas may be the stuff dreams are made of, but when meteorologists start measuring snow in feet, it can quickly become the kind of nightmare seen in recent days in Buffalo, New York.
After more than two dozen people died in Buffalo during the Christmas weekend blizzard, Erie County Executive Director Mark Poloncarz said the storm, the second of the season, was likely the ” worst storm of our lives”. Other parts of the country have also been grappling with extreme weather, with cold temperatures linked to 49 deaths, the Associated Press reported.
Scientists say extreme weather events, such as the Buffalo blizzard, could occur more often or be more intense as Earth’s climate changes.
Why Climate Change Brings More Extremes
Average air temperatures have been warming across the planet for decades, and in doing so, the atmosphere is holding more water vapor in some places, increasing the potential for extreme rain and snow events, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Warmer temperatures mean it takes longer for the Great Lakes to freeze over in fall and winter, said David Easterling, climate assessments section chief for NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. This open water means more fuel for the natural snow machine known as lake effect snow to hit the area.
In other regions, warmer temperatures mean rain instead of snow. Much of the eastern half of the United States has seen an increase in extreme precipitation events.
Learn more:Tempted to joke about global warming in the middle of the freezing cold? Here’s what the experts are saying about it.
What is lake snow?
Lake-effect snow forms when narrow bands of cloud form in cold, below-freezing air coming out of the Arctic and over large lakes, such as Lake Erie and the Lake Superior in the Great Lakes.
When really cold, dry air comes in from Canada and crosses over a body of warm water, “it evaporates like crazy,” Easterling told USA TODAY on Tuesday.
Once the system moves over land and slows down, all that moisture becomes precipitation and falls to the ground as snow or rain, Easterling said.
What you need to know about climate change:What is global warming? Definitions explained.
Is climate change making lake effect snow worse?
Maybe. Great Lakes water temperatures stay warmer later in the fall, and cold air moving over the lakes can take advantage of that, Easterling said.
Weather records show temperatures in New York City have risen 2.5 degrees since the turn of the 20th century, according to NOAA’s 2022 climate summary for the state. Temperatures were warmer than at any other time.
“The (Great Lakes) don’t freeze until later in the fall than they used to,” Easterling said. “They stay warm later in the season.”
Has climate change done this? :How its impacts disrupt our daily lives, fuel disasters.
Since 1998, Lake Erie has remained virtually ice-free only about half a dozen times, according to NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. Lake Ontario ice cover has remained below 40% since 2006, with the exception of winters 2013-14 and 2014-15.
Meanwhile, researchers report that the region has seen some of the highest increases in snowfall in the country and may continue to see those increases in the future.
Where does the December 2022 snow event rank in the records?
As of Tuesday morning, the National Weather Service in Buffalo had reported more than 51 inches of snow at its office in Cheektowaga, New York. The 43 inches that fell on Sunday was the third snowiest three-day period on record, Steven Welch, a meteorologist with that office, told USA TODAY on Tuesday. Weather records for the location date back to 1870.
Eight of the top 10 three-day totals have occurred since 1995. The two best three-day snowfall records were set in December 2001, 56.1 inches for the three days ending Dec. 28 and 48.1 for the three days ending Dec. 29, Welch said.
Fact check:Human-caused climate change, celestial ‘magnetic state’ not cause of extreme heat