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December 4, 2014

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Climate Change Buries Buffalo

December 4, 2014

The colder it is, the more it can snow, right. Maybe. Snow may be fluffier and a great deal deeper, for instance, in the Rockies, than in New York City. An inch of water in the Big Apple, typically produces about 10-12 inches of wet snow, say at temperatures of about 28-34 degrees F, whereas in Leadville, Colorado, that inch of water can produce as much as 80 inches of fluffy, dry, snow at a typical temperature of 10 degrees F. On the other hand, warmer air can hold more moisture. And warm water can transfer prodigious amounts of moisture to cooler air passing over it—the warmer the water is, the more it can transfer.


Cutting to the chase, the average water temperature in Lake Erie—this lake is immediately upwind from the Buffalo area-- on November 19 over the years is about 47 degrees F, but this year was 50-54 degrees F. Thus, the difference is from 3 to 7 degrees above normal. Each additional degree F can transfer 4% more moisture. So the present temperatures can transfer from 12-28% more moisture than the average. The largest reported snow depth from the recent lake-effect storm that began on November 19 in the Buffalo area was about 85 inches.  Using 20% as the average additional moisture available from the warmer water, the snow fall maximum in an average year would likely have been about 14 inches less, or about 71 inches, still a sizable snowfall, but likely not a record. 


So, Lake Erie is considerably warmer this winter than normal, and according to Paul Huttner, Chief Meteorologist for Minnesota Public Radio, “Longer term trends show that Lake Erie has become measurably warmer.” Climate change? 


But another factor, independent of the warmer lake water, adds to the case for climate change. From Dr. Michael Mann, Professor and Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University: 


“Part of what gave us the record lake-effect snowfall in Buffalo was warm, late fall surface temperatures that combined with something highly unusual: a 5 sigma event. That is, a very unlikely event, on the order of 1-in-a-million—a remarkably persistent, anomalous configuration of the jet stream, which brought frigid Arctic air down into the United States so early in the season. The cold winds traveling over the warm, moisture-laden lake created the perfect storm of conditions for record lake-effect snow.”      


According to Dr. Jennifer Francis of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Science at Rutgers University,  "The temperature difference between the Arctic and lower latitudes is one of the main sources of fuel for the jet stream; it's what drives the winds. And because the Arctic is warming so fast, that temperature difference is getting smaller, and so the fuel for the jet stream is getting weaker," Francis says. "When it gets into this pattern, those big waves tend to stay in the same place for some time. The pattern we've seen in December and January has been one of these very wavy patterns.” (Spoken in February of 2014) 

Another scientist, Dr. Jeff Masters, Weather Underground, says the weather patterns such as Dr. Francis is speaking about—the “polar vortex” of last winter—may become more common as the Arctic Ocean ice melts with warmer temperatures, especially in the winter.


Arctic America has warmed some 2-3 times more than temperatures further south.   

Finally, then, as the ice on the Arctic Ocean melts due to global warming, the larger, longer-period iceless ocean areas absorb even more solar radiation than much lighter-colored ice and snow, and this feedback warms the Arctic area (land and ocean). Further adding to the Arctic warming, is the melting of permafrost (on land and at the bottom of the ocean), releasing the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, that formed there long ago. With these two separate positive feedbacks, is it any wonder that the Arctic is warming so much faster than points south which don’t have significant sea ice cover or permafrost? Climate change has always been thought of as a complex process with many moving parts, many of which will, perhaps at first surprisingly, affect other parts. 


Like John Muir said almost a hundred years ago, "Tug on anything at all and you'll find it connected to everything else in the universe".






















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