Massive snowstorms like those that hit the US and Europe last winter are likely to become more frequent, says the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), thanks to global warming.
In each of the past two winters, the northeastern US has been hammered by three Category 3 or above snowstorms. This has happened only once before in the last 50 years, during the winter of 1960-1961.
“Heavy snowstorms are not inconsistent with a warming planet,” says Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for the Weather Underground website.
“In fact, as the Earth gets warmer and more moisture gets absorbed into the atmosphere, we are steadily loading the dice in favor of more extreme storms in all seasons, capable of causing greater impacts on society.”
Warming has been particularly pronounced in the Arctic, says Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
“It’s still cutting edge research and there’s no smoking gun, but there’s evidence that with less sea ice, you put a lot of heat from the ocean into the atmosphere, and the circulation of the atmosphere responds to that,” he says.
And this year’s series of heavy snowfalls across the US isn’t yet over.
“One or two major snowstorms are expected to hit the Upper Midwest next week. They already have piled up snow pack there that’s among the wettest on record and that threatens to unleash what could be record floods in Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota this spring,” he says.
“If the climate continues to warm we should expect an increase in heavy snowstorms for a few decades. But eventually, with winters getting shorter, we may reach the point where it’s too warm to snow heavily.”