Why Can a Warming Climate Increase Snowfall?
It can seem counterintuitive that on a warming planet, winter storms can produce so much snow. But it’s actually a fairly logical consequence of climate change’s intensifying effect on the earth’s water cycle.
More extreme precipitation events — snow as well as rain — are “exactly what we expect in a warming world,” said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
As the planet warms, so do both the oceans and the atmosphere. Warmer oceans increase the amount of water that evaporates into the air, and warmer air can hold more water vapor, which it eventually releases as precipitation.
Overall, winter temperatures are warming, and the length of the winter season is shortening. Warmer temperatures mean that more of that precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow, according to Sean Birkel, climatologist for the state of Maine. But some places could still see more snowfall than before, when rising temperatures are still below the freezing point.
Global climate change unfolds a story of extremes: Historically wet areas are likely to experience increased precipitation, while historically dry areas may see more drought, as higher evaporation rates dry out the soil.