Hunkered down at home, under a “state of emergency” declared by Governor Christie, there’s something serious to be said about the weather we experienced this week. The media coverage is all over the “bombogenesis” happening outside my window, the “bomb cyclone” forecast to “explode” and “monster nor’easter” tackling the entire East Coast, bring temperatures “colder than Mars.”
While the phrase “bomb cyclone” might sound hyperbolic, we are not experiencing the same weather our parents did when they were our age and they trudged through uphill — both ways! — five miles, in the snow just to get to school. This was not your father’s snowstorm — and because of climate change, we may be in for more like it.
Individual snow storms (no matter how big) are rarely cataclysmic, but it is not fear-mongering to appreciate the existential impact of climate change: We really are altering the fundamental mechanics of the planet (and in particular, the oceans). As a consequence, individual event frequency and intensity are changing. Some storms are bigger and more frequent, but in some places there is less rainfall – increasing drought.
We know that the 10 warmest years (on average, for the earth) have occurred since 1997 and evidence gathered by organizations such as NOAA indicate that the warming trends seen over the 19th and 20th centuries is unprecedented over the past 1,000 years. Scientific models also indicate the likelihood of more extreme or unusual weather. Storms such as Sandy and this most recent event could very well be symptoms of climate change because they are unusual, extreme and fueled by an ocean that is far warmer than what would have been considered normal for this time of year not too long ago.
Straightforward science describes the relationship between snow and climate change.
Warmer temperatures cause more water to evaporate, and warmer air holds more water. The warming creates supersaturated air, bringing (when cold enough) heavy and intense snowfall.
Ironically, climate change is bringing shorter, warmer winters but is also increasing the intensity of snowstorms when it gets cold enough to snow – which it will still do, although within a smaller “winter window.” Additionally, rising sea levels increase base water levels so that, when a coastal storm occurs, we will experience greater and more widespread flooding.
Professor Anthony Broccoli of Rutgers University takes it to the basics. “The maximum amount of water vapor that can be present increases with increasing temperatures. That’s just a consequence of the laws of physics,” Broccoli said.
Dr. Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research draws the big picture. “There is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.”
In a few days, the media will turn to the wrap up: damages to property (and hopefully not lives or limbs), economic costs because of missed work, inconvenience or trashed travel plans due to flight cancellations or delays, post storm flooding as the snow melts. The cost will pinch, but not be cataclysmic.
But in the not-so-distant future, when we are standing in line for milk or wrestling our neighbor for the last loaf of Wonder Bread, and it occurs to us that this is getting to be a regular occurrence, maybe we will devote a few thoughts to how – today – we might minimize or mitigate the impacts of climate change. There are readily available actions, both personal and policy, although we seem to be headed in all the wrong directions as a nation.
In New Jersey, nongovernmental organizations, scientists and businesses have come together to form the New Jersey Climate Adaptation Alliance. They have lots of ideas, found on their website hosted by Rutgers University.
We should take advantage of the snow, curl up with our laptops, and think beyond the hyperbole about the serious issues building up in drifts around us.
Tim Dillingham is the executive director of the American Littoral Society.