Snow Swallows Buffalo: Because, Climate Change!
Last week, Buffalo, NY, a city already famous for its snowy winter weather (and amazing chicken wings– I’m looking at you, Duff’s!) was engulfed in one of the most intense lake-effect snowstorms in recorded history. The city made international headlines, with seven feet of snow falling in some places. Most of this snow fell in only two days, but it took South Buffalo and its suburbs the rest of the week to dig out.
Here’s the million-dollar question a lot of people have asked: is this monumental weather event related to global climate change? Or, is it just a freak of nature?
While it might seem like an alarmist response, signs point to yes.
It all has to do with the water temperature of Lake Erie. The “lake-effect” phenomenon is well-known to those living on the shores of the Great Lakes. When weather systems travel across these large inland seas, they gather strength from the warm water before making landfall. Lake-effect weather in Western New York usually ceases during the coldest months of the winter because the surface of Lake Erie freezes and stops providing the warm humidity storms need to gain strength.
Lake Erie has never frozen over by November. So, how is this storm a product of climate change?
For the answer to that burning question, we need to revisit the biggest news story from last winter: the polar vortex!
The polar vortex came back to the United States with a vengeance in November 2014. It brought arctic air to much of the Mid-West and East Coast. The frigid air, coupled with warmer surface temperatures on the lake, was the perfect recipe for Buffalo’s monster storm. Accuweather summed up the situation, saying, “The action of cold air passing over the relatively warm waters of the Great Lakes will unleash bands of lake-effect flurries, snow and squalls from the Upper Midwest to the interior Northeast.” That prediction was released on Accuweather’s website November 8, 2014. It turns out they were right.
The polar vortex blankets the US with arctic air whenever the jet stream (a strong air current, flowing primarily from west to east that encircles the earth) dips far to the south. Under “normal” conditions, the jet stream blocks arctic air from creeping over most of the United States. But, its unusually extreme oscillations over the past few years could be a sign that weather patterns will continue to intensify, and that can be attributed to a warming world.
Even though the jet stream is located in the atmosphere, miles above the earth, its pattern of air flow is largely dictated by the rotation and surface temperature of the earth. Princeton University explains, “Jet streams are caused by a combination of a planet’s rotation on its axis and atmospheric heating…” therefore, changes in temperature of the earth will affect the course of the jet stream, and our weather as a result.
Granted, the warming of Earth’s surface temperature is only one theory that could explain the “wobbly” behavior of the jet stream. There’s no proof yet that global warming is the cause, but the point is that it’s possible. Buffalo’s recent winter blast is unprecedented (in terms of lake-effect snowfall amounts) in recorded history. Many are comparing this event, dubbed “Winter Storm Knife” (I hate that name, by the way) to the Blizzard of ’77 – which is the only storm that was more devastating than “Knife.”
In 1977, Lake Erie was frozen by mid-December. High winds picked up already-fallen snow from the lake and dumped it over Western New York (an event often referred to as a “ground blizzard”). The ’77 blizzard pounded Buffalo and surrounding areas with a much larger amount of snow (over 100 inches in some places), so it took longer to clean up and caused more casualties than “Knife.” What scares me is that actual lake-effect snowfall total was much higher for Winter Storm Knife. What if that becomes a new normal?
Stronger hurricanes and droughts are often attributed to “global warming” – a term that is being phased out by climate scientists. “Climate change” is a more appropriate phrase because not only will warmer surface temperatures, trapped by greenhouse gases, cause extreme warm weather events, it might actually make our winters, and our blizzards, even worse.
I’m not moving out of Buffalo though, no matter how much snow falls. I like Duff’s wings way too much. In fact, so does President Obama:
Is Winter Storm Knife (actually, no one likes that name), a freak occurrence or a climate change alarm? Is there a better name for that storm? Let us know what you think!
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