Why Global Warming Won't Curtail Big Snowstorms

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©. Melissa Breyer | NYC 2016

The harshest snowstorms along the Eastern Seaboard will remain as frequent in a warming world.

In recent years it seems that during particularly cold cold snaps, someone – a non-scientist, a drunk uncle, the 45th President of the United States – will say something like, “wow we sure could use some of that global warming right about now.” As if scientists haven’t been predicting for years that increased global temperature will give rise to all kinds of extreme weather, cold snaps included.

While it’s true that colder weather may seem at odds with a warmer planet, what may seem even more counterintuitive is that we can expect major snowstorms to continue as the planet warms up, according to a recent study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The researchers conclude that climate change is expected to reduce the total amount of U.S. snowfall this century, but will likely not significantly rein in the most powerful “nor'easters” that slam the East Coast

Nor'easters are a special breed of storm that can deliver intense blizzard conditions and coastal flooding to the Eastern seaboard, bringing with them major disruption and billions of dollars’ worth of damage.


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration | January 2018 satellite image shows intense nor'easter /CC BY 4.0

The authors of the study determined that smaller snowstorms, those dropping just a few inches, will be few and far between by the end of the century. Total snowfall will become less as more precipitation will fall as rain because of the warming influence of greenhouse gases on the atmosphere. But the devastating nor'easters will stay the course as the planet heats up.

"What this research finds is almost all of the decrease in snow occurs in weaker, more nuisance-type events," said atmospheric scientist Colin Zarzycki, author of the study. "The really crippling storms that have major regional impacts on transportation, on the economy, on infrastructure are not significantly mitigated in a warming climate."

"The big nor'easters are not just going to go away."

So how do higher temperatures promise the endurance of crazy-big snowstorms? The research concludes that a storm’s impact can be influenced by a number of factors: “A shorter snow season, the ability of the atmosphere to hold more water, the warming of ocean waters that fuel powerful storms, and the increased energy in the warmer atmosphere that can turbocharge storms when conditions are lined up.”

As Zarzycki puts it, "We'll have fewer storms overall in the future, but when the atmospheric conditions align they'll still pack a wallop, with incredibly heavy snowfall rates.”

The study – which was published in Geophysical Research Letters and was primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Energy – adds to other research looking into the odd and complex ways that a warmer atmosphere will have an impact on weather patterns and extreme weather events. Much like the prediction of enduring nor’easters, scientists also expect that hurricanes and hailstorms will most likely become less frequent in the future ... but when the big ones come, they will bring no shortage of fury.

So the next time the East Coast is battered by a giant snowstorm ... and a climate-change denier starts quipping about the need for a little global warming, they can rest assured that that is exactly what they are getting.