Jan 31, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Climate change may be supercharging Northeast snowstorms

Map showing weekend blizzard in northeast
Sea surface temperature departures from average on Jan. 29, 2021. (Weatherbell.com)

The weekend blizzard that slammed coastal Mid-Atlantic and New England with up to 30.9 inches of snow and howling winds is consistent with climate science research showing how the characteristics of these winter storms are changing.

Why it matters: Nor'easters have been affecting New England for generations, and they are deadly and costly. Climate change may be making these weather systems more potent.

Details: These types of storms are powered by the contrast between air masses, with Arctic air to the north and relatively mild maritime air over the waters of the Gulf Stream.

  • Due to climate change, ocean temperatures are climbing and more moisture is being added to the atmosphere.
  • This is causing an uptick in heavy precipitation events (rain and snow) and may boost the storm intensification rates. The Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest-warming ocean regions on Earth, a trend tied to climate change.
  • The weekend storm intensified at an extraordinary pace, its minimum central pressure plunging by 35 millibars in 18 hours. In general, the lower the pressure, the stronger the storm.

The big picture: Many of the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast's biggest snowstorms on record have occurred since 2000, in line with climate change-related trends toward more frequent and severe heavy precipitation events.

  • Including Saturday, six of Boston's top 10 snowstorms have occurred since 2003, and nine of its top 10 since 1978. Similar trends have been seen in New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
  • Computer modeling studies show an intensification of the bigger storms, even as smaller snow events become rare.

Go deeper: The cost of last year's "relentless" climate and weather disasters

Go deeper