JAN 24, 2019 7:16 PM PST

Will climate change turbocharge Nor'easters?

New research published in Geophysical Research Letters and primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Energy suggests that climate change will not decrease the intensity or frequency of Nor’easter storms on the United States’ East Coast.

While we can expect to see a fall in overall snowfall in the coming decades due to warming temperatures, the study highlights that the particular aspect of climate change that decreases snowfall is specific to smaller snowstorms, not big storms like Nor’easters.

How many nor'easters will our future climate bring? Photo: Pixabay

"What this research finds is almost all of the decrease in snow occurs in weaker, more nuisance-type events," said lead author of the study and atmospheric scientist Colin Zarzycki. "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.” He added, "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.”

Zarzycki based his research on existing computer simulations from the NCAR-based Community Earth System Model. The simulations model climate conditions under the assumption that we will continue to emit greenhouse gases at the same rate we currently do. Using an algorithm, Zarzycki was able to specifically isolate nor’easter storms in the simulations in order to project how the impact that climate change will have on them in the future. Science Daily explains the results:

“The results show that moderate nor'easters, which currently occur every one to two years, will decline sharply over the next few decades and become almost twice as rare by late century. But the frequency of very powerful storms that occur about once a decade, or of the most extreme storms that strike a few times per century, will be largely unchanged.”

What are the driving factors behind these big storms? Some include the atmosphere’s heightened ability to hold water, warmer ocean temperatures, and more energy in the warmer atmosphere. All these conditions influence the strength of a storm, with the potential to produce nor’easters we’ve never seen the likes of.

Sources: Science DailyGeophysical Research Letters 

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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