Ask Don Paul: Is there a warming climate connection with this disaster? – Buffalo News
Stark reality trumps even good forecasts. All of us in the meteorological community warned how paralyzing this unique storm would be well in advance of its arrival. The National Weather Service even issued its blizzard warning a day ahead of the bomb cyclone and its powerful cold front, when such warnings more typically are issued closer to when such conditions are in progress or immediately imminent.
“In the big picture, the storm is coming, and when it arrives it will be the most crippling blizzard we’ve suffered since at least the Blizzard of ’85,” writes Don Paul.
But nothing could prepare any of us for the stark horror of what has continued to unfold during the storm and in its aftermath. I was asked for my thoughts on Saturday by the Washington Post.
At the time, I remained a little skeptical this disaster would quite measure up to the Blizzard of ’77. That storm had killed 29 people. Although I was working in Wichita, Kan., at the time and hadn’t experienced it, I was shown an aircheck of WIVB’s 11 p.m. newscast from the night of Jan. 28, 1977, when I arrived here in 1984. I read books on it, saw saved NWS reports from the storm, talked to staffers at the station and read newspaper accounts of the storm’s unique impacts. I knew this storm would be a true disaster, even exceeding the dimensions of the Blizzard of ’85, but I had my doubts it would quite measure up to the ’77 storm.
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It’s now readily apparent this storm, with its still-rising death toll, will stand as tragically unique in our local history. The Blizzard of ’77, while not a total surprise, was under-forecast for its severity. The Blizzard of ’22 was forecast with great detail and with considerable advance notice, yet we are seeing fatalities at least in the same range as the ’77 blizzard. The latter was largely a ground blizzard with severe blowing, rather than falling, snow. This blizzard had both severe blowing snow, with high winds packing flakes together into dense drifts, along with heavy falling snow. The airport topped the list.
Up until this onslaught, Buffalo’s December mean temperature had been a little above average. Despite earlier lake effect of 11 inches at the airport the previous weekend, our December snowfall was running 3 inches below average as of last Thursday. And, even with the massive November lake storm and cold spell, November had a mean temperature 2.3 degrees above average.
Now, as of late Sunday, Buffalo’s total snowfall has reached 92.7 inches, which is 64.4 inches above the average of 28.3 to this date, and is also close to our seasonal average total of around 95 inches.
The positioning of a portion of the polar vortex (PV) was one of the key ingredients in intensification of this powerful “bomb cyclone.” Friday morning upper air analysis clearly showed a deep penetration southward of the PV, with the polar jet stream to its south.
To recap the possible climate connection between rapid arctic warming and such an intrusion, we need to remember the arctic is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the globe. Most of this is due to a reduction in the high reflectivity of sea ice at high latitudes, allowing more heat to be stored in the Arctic Ocean, releasing more warmth and evaporative moisture into the atmosphere. There has been considerable research suggesting but not yet proving this high-latitude warming leads to more frequent episodic polar intrusions southward, even amidst the most rapidly warming season, winter. It sounds counterintuitive, but one such leading researcher, Dr. Judah Cohen, explains this hypothesis in a video not related to our storm.
An #Arctic front is poised to bring wind chill values as low as -50 to parts of the U.S.
Research suggests severe winter weather like this could be tied to warming in the Arctic.
— Pattrn (@pattrn) December 21, 2022
Although I am not a researcher, I have found the work done by scientists such as Cohen and former Rutgers researcher Dr. Jennifer Francis to be reasonably convincing, though even Cohen agrees the hypothesis is not yet conclusive. After all, there have been such polar vortex disruptions before global warming accelerated. One question is whether these intrusions have increased since arctic warming drastically increased. This may sound trite, but “the jury is still out” on the question, nicely explained in a balanced NOAA.Climate.gov article.
In science, most researchers want to avoid drawing conclusions before evidence is sufficiently weighed and reviewed by peers. While it may appear these drastic cold weather extremes are happening more often in otherwise milder winters, (the overall milder winters are definitely tied to a warming climate), it is still too early to conclude the PV intrusions are definitively tied to that same warming, despite such growing suggestive data.
Forecast: A few more inches, then a big warmup
Even while many tens of thousands of Western New Yorkers are struggling to clear paths to deal with a desperate situation from the snow already densely packed on the ground, more is on the way. But it will not be in any way comparable with what we already have endured. Lighter lake snow moved north Monday morning.
By Monday evening into early Tuesday, more widespread snow with embedded lake snow will arrive in our region.
After Monday’s 1- to 3-inch fluffy accumulation, another 2-4 inches will fall into Tuesday morning, with locally a little more in the most persistent modest lake-effect band. This time around, there will be enough of a breeze for some reduced visibility but no whiteouts, nor will the wind be strong enough to break up the dendrite snowflakes and pack them into dense smaller crystals, as occurred during the blizzard.
In short, the new snow will be fluffier and easier to shovel, atop the densely packed snow in place. Scattered occasional lighter snow showers will continue on a southwest breeze Tuesday, producing patchy 1 to 3 inches of additional accumulations before ending in the evening. The Tuesday high will be the last subfreezing high around here for quite some time to come, in the mid- to upper 20s.
Come Wednesday, we’ll find ourselves in a moderating southwest breeze, no longer coming around the bottom of a cold low pressure center.
Under a partly cloudy sky, the afternoon high should reach the low 40s, although there will be a noticeable wind chill in a 15-25 mph breeze.
The southwest flow will continue to build through Friday, allowing readings to head well above average.
Some scattered rain showers may develop Saturday, and some of them may be around on a mild New Year’s Eve, with temps in the 40s. For those traveling to Cincinnati for the game, occasional showers are likely to move in by early evening, with temps in the upper 40s.
Behind the next cold front is Pacific, not arctic, air that will hold readings in the 40s next Sunday. As for the extended range, a very fundamental pattern change will be evolving. A ridge of warming high pressure will set up, keeping arctic air well to the west for the first eight or nine days of January, as it appears now.
The Climate Prediction Center is on board with this thinking, with the highest level of confidence for above average temperatures in the six- to 10-day period.