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.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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