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Science
| 01/29/15

US blizzard hints at extreme weather ahead

TCE

Winter storm Juno bore down on the United States eastern seaboard earlier this week. New York, braced for a state of emergency thanks to dire warnings from Mayor Bill de Blasio and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, saw a scant 10 inches of snow but other areas saw deeper accumulations. Five of New York’s biggest snow storms on record have occurred since 2000, and scientists say that trend is consistent with climate change projections. The storms are supersized because of increased water vapour in the atmosphere due to global warming, meaning there is more moisture for storms “to feed on”, to quote US climate scientist Michael Mann. In the winter, that translates into heavier snow (even though the snow season itself is getting shorter). In the summer, that translates into stronger storms travelling further north, such as superstorm Sandy in 2012. The increased frequency of heavy storms linked to climate change was also described in 2012 by climate scientists. It’s now thought that about 35 per cent of the rain associated with superstorm Sandy could be attributed to climate change.

Extremes have been witnessed closer to home recently. British Columbia broke temperature records last weekend, with daytime highs reaching more than 15 degrees Celsius in White Rock, for example, while intense rain led to some flooding in the lower mainland. Earlier in the month an epic snowfall blanketed the Okanagan (on Twitter, dubbed #Snowkanagan). But can such events be attributed to climate change? The extreme rainfall and warm temperatures last weekend resulted from the arrival of a so-called ‘Pineapple Express’, a stream of warm, moisture-laden air that originates in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii and flows across the Pacific to Washington and lower BC. These “atmospheric rivers” drench the coast with rain and the colder interior with snow. While the ‘pineapple express’ phenomenon isn’t new, there are emerging suggestions based on climate physics that the severity of this and other expressions of extreme weather over North America may be linked in part to disappearing Arctic sea ice and its affect on the flow of the jet stream around the northern hemisphere, as described by climate scientist Jennifer Francis.

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