Rising temps won't halt blizzard hazard

Blizzard-768

Jumping for joy during a 2011 New York City blizzard. Less snow as a result of global warming doesn't mean blizzards will disappear, new science suggests. Photo courtesy Dan Nguyen/flickr.

Sept. 6, 2014

A warming world may have less snow, but the sort of severe snowstorms that caused chaos in the US this year will remain a serious hazard.

By Tim Radford
Climate News Network

LONDON − There's still a chance that some people who dream of a white Christmas will get their wish. While there may be less snow falling overall in a warming world, there will still be blizzards.

Paul O'Gorman, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reports in the journal Nature that that the kind of snowstorms that hit the US in 2014 will remain a hazard, even though there may be fewer of them.

In the higher latitudes, extreme snowfall became more intense.

O'Gorman studied daily snowfall in the northern hemisphere through the prism of 20 different climate models. Each of these projected climate change over a century, according to various emissions of greenhouse gases.

He also looked at seasonal average and extreme snowfall events, both under current conditions and as the planet warms. 

'Extremes actually increase'

"There's less known about these very heavy snowfalls," O'Gorman said. "In some regions, it is possible for average snowfall to decrease but the snowfall extremes actually increase."

Climate scientists have consistently warned that a rise in average planetary temperatures is likely to be accompanied by a rise in the frequency or intensity of extreme events.

By these, they usually mean windstorms, floods and heat waves. But ice storms remain part of the picture too. That is because even as temperatures on average creep up, there will be places and seasons where the rain could still turn to snow.

The study found that, under high warming scenarios, those low-lying regions with average winter temperatures normally just below freezing would see a 65 percent reduction in average winter snowfall. But in these places, the heaviest snowstorms on average became only 8 percent less intense. In the higher latitudes, extreme snowfall became more intense, with 10 percent more snow, even under scenarios of relatively high average warming.

There is a relatively narrow temperature range − just below freezing point − at which the heaviest snowfalls seem to occur.

"People may know the expression, 'It's too cold to snow,'" O'Gorman said. "If it's very cold, there is too little water vapor in the air to support a very heavy snowfall, and if it's too warm, most of the precipitation will fall as rain.

"Snowfall extremes still occur in the same narrow temperature range with climate change, and so they respond differently to climate change compared to rainfall extremes or average snowfall."

Tim Radford is an editor of Climate News Network, a journalism news service delivering news and commentary about climate change for free to media outlets worldwide. 

The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, the environment and climate change. Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer [at] DailyClimate.org

  Find more Daily Climate stories in the TDC Newsroom

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

 Based on a work at www.dailyclimate.org

 Recent DailyClimate.org coverage