Millions Under Blizzard Warning: Is It Climate Connected?
Photo credit: Ed Vallee / Twitter
Winter Storm Stella is headed to the Northeast and states from Maryland to Maine are expected to witness more than a foot of snow, hurricane force winds and coastal flooding through March 14.
The massive snowstorm has multiple climate connections helping to fuel its destructive power. Elevated sea levels will amplify and extend the reach of Stella's storm surge. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor for Stella, increasing blizzard risk as the storm can collect and dump that moisture as extreme snowfall, sleet and rainfall. Sea surface temperatures are record warm in the Atlantic Gulf Stream, pumping more heat energy and moisture into the storm, further increasing the risk of blizzard.
Check out this #timelapse! A heavy band of #snow dumped 7" in just over 2 hours this morning in Apalachin, NY!… https://t.co/VgW4GKMjDN— AMHQ (@AMHQ)1489493215.0
The amplification of these physical mechanisms can be seen in the long-term trends. Between 1961 and 2010, there have been twice as many extreme regional snowstorms in the U.S. compared to 1900 to 1960. In New York City, which is forecast to receive between 12 to 18 inches of snow over the course of one day, six of the 10 all-time biggest snowstorms on record have occurred since 2000. An extreme event driven by natural variability and amplified by climate change is consistent with what science projects for a warming world.
Climate Science At-a-Glance
- The storm is driven by classic Nor'easter conditions, aided by other regional weather patterns and amplified by climate change. This combination is consistent with what science projects for a warming world over the short-term.
- Extreme winter snowfall is increasing in many colder regions as the warming atmosphere is holding more water vapor and dumping more snowfall where temperatures are still below freezing.
- The storm is pulling moisture from the Gulf Stream where sea surface temperatures are record warm, increasing the risk of blizzard. Snowfall and sleet can increase where temperatures are still below freezing while rain can increase where temperatures rise above freezing. The profile of Stella matches the Goldilocks profiles of recent nor'easters in which a sharp contrast between cold continental air and a relatively warm ocean permitted the storms to tap moisture fed by high sea surface temperatures and convert it into exceptional snowfall.
- There have been twice as many extreme regional snowstorms in the U.S. between 1961 and 2010 compared to 1900 to 1960.
- In New York City's Central Park, of top 10 all-time snowfall events since 1869, six have occurred since 2000.
- Coastal flooding driven by storms is now significantly worse due to storm surge riding on higher sea levels.
Warmer Seas are Helping to Fuel Winter Storm Stella's Destructive Power
The storm is pulling heat and moisture from the Gulf Stream, where sea surface temperatures are record warm at more than 7.2°F (4°C) above the 1961 to 1990 average. Global warming raises sea surface temperatures.
The additional water vapor fed into the storm can increase snowfall where temperatures are still below freezing and increase rain and sleet where temperatures rise above freezing. The water vapor can also provide additional latent heat to power the storm. This is expected to help fuel hurricane-force winds that have the potential to whip up dangerous storm surge.
Warmer, Saturated Air Holds and Dumps More Snow, Giving Rise to More Extreme Storms
Extreme precipitation is linked to the global warming of the atmosphere. A warmer atmosphere that is fully saturated holds and dumps more precipitation. Storms passing through a warmer atmosphere can pick up more moisture, resulting in extreme precipitation: such as blizzard when temperatures are below freezing and sleet or heavy rain when they are not.
Temperatures in the Goldilocks range of between about 28°F and 32°F, accompanied by moisture, mean more snow. The profile of Stella matches the Goldilocks profiles of recent nor'easters in which a sharp contrast between cold continental air and a relatively warm ocean permitted the storms to tap moisture fed by high sea surface temperatures and convert it into exceptional snowfall.
There were twice as many extreme regional snowstorms in the U.S. between 1961 and 2010, compared to 1900 to 1960. In New York City, six of the top 10 snowfall events since 1869 for Central Park have occurred since 2000.
These events and trends are in-line with a consistent set of findings delivered by numerous leading science reports. The U.S. National Climate Assessment reports that there has already been an increase in extreme precipitation in the Northeast, with precipitation rising by 71 percent between 1958 to 2012. Extremely heavy snowstorms have increased in number during the last century in northern and eastern parts of the U.S.
Should global warming continue unabated, local temperatures in the U.S. northeast would eventually warm to the point of converting extreme snow fall to extreme rainfall. However that signal has not yet been detected and is not expected to emerge for perhaps another 20 years.
Climate Change Contribution to Sea Level Rise Can Top Coastal Defenses
The storm's exceptionally strong winds are expected to drive a peak storm surge of 1 - 3 feet on Tuesday along much of the coast of Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, including Cape Cod and the islands.
Coastal flooding driven by storms is amplified by storm surge riding on higher sea levels. Due to climate change, the global ocean has already risen 8 to 10 inches over the last century as warmer ocean waters expand and ice sheets and glaciers melt. In addition, the intense winds that produce storm surge can gain strength from warmer than average sea surface temperatures. Warming seas and elevated sea levels are both driven by global warming.
In low-lying areas, a small increase in sea levels translates into much greater inundation as storm surge travels much further inland. In addition, even a small increase in surge can top coastal defenses and disaster often strikes when thresholds are crossed. Twenty-four percent of the property damage in New York City during Superstorm Sandy has been attributed to elevated seal levels that extended the reach of the storm's surge. While climate change may be responsible for only part of any particular climate event, that change may be largely responsible for most of the damage in that event, such as when flooding defenses are breached.
New, more intense extremes can overwhelm and collapse existing human systems and structures.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate Signals.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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