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Climate Change Is Bringing More Extreme Precipitation Events to the Northeast

Forecasters scaled back their estimates early Tuesday for snowfall in New York City, but a White House climate report says extreme precipitation is up 71 percent since 1958.
Image via AP/Steven Senne

Warmer than average waters over the Atlantic Ocean are pumping more moisture into the snowstorm that hit the Northeast on Monday and Tuesday, but it's too early to blame this one on the changing climate.

The massive blizzard forecasters feared in New York City fizzled as it struck Monday, leaving less than six inches of a feared two-plus feet on Central Park. Totals in New Jersey and Philadelphia were far lighter than expected as well, prompting an apology from Gary Szatkowski, the head of the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly, New Jersey.

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OK, no sense postponing the inevitable. Snow amounts have been sharply curtailed. New products coming out now from — Gary Szatkowski (@GarySzatkowski)January 27, 2015

My deepest apologies to many key decision makers and so many members of the general public.

— Gary Szatkowski (@GarySzatkowski)January 27, 2015

But the storm was still expected to dump more than two feet of snow on Connecticut and the far reaches of Long Island, while forecasters predicted up to two feet for Boston and for towns as far north as Maine.

Scientists hesitate to blame any particular storm on climate change. But they've long said that while a warmer future is likely to mean less snowfall overall, the blizzards will be bigger when they come. That's because the warmer average temperatures allow the air to hold more moisture — so when a cold snap does hit, the odds of a major snowstorm go up.

In the Northeast, the amount of precipitation falling in big storms is up 71 percent since 1958, the White House's National Climate Assessment concluded in 2014. The report projected that trend would continue, "even in regions where total precipitation is projected to decrease."

And right now, one of the globe's biggest hot spots is the northwestern Atlantic Ocean off the Northeast. Some parts of the seas have been more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) warmer than normal this week, said Ken Kunkel, a contributor to the White House report.

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'I would say that certainly the storm itself is not caused by climate change, but every storm is affected by climate change.'

"That's a pretty healthy anomaly there, so there's a lot of water vapor over those waters," Kunkel told VICE News. "There's moister air than normal being drawn into this system."

Kevin Trenberth, Distinguished Senior Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, blamed climate change for about half of that warming; the rest was the result of a "rather wimpy" Atlantic hurricane season that took less energy out of the ocean than storms in more active years would have.

"I would say that certainly the storm itself is not caused by climate change, but every storm is affected by climate change," Trenberth told VICE News. "It can't not be."

In addition, temperatures closer to the freezing point are more likely to produce snow than colder weather, which "freeze-dries" the air, he said.

"You still have winter, but the ocean is warmer than it used to be," Trenbeth said. "That means all of the moisture that's being brought in by the Atlantic in these storms has a profound effect on these communities."

Grateful that last night's storm was not as severe as was expected, and for the hardworking team at the Department of Sanitation. — Bill de Blasio (@BilldeBlasio)January 27, 2015

As the storm bore down on his state Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo raised the climate question with reporters.

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"I believe I've gone through more emergency disasters in four years than any governor in history has gone through," Cuomo told reporters, citing Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the November blizzard that dumped seven feet of snow on Buffalo.

"You're getting a repeat pattern of these extreme weather situations, whether it's Hurricane Sandy or seven feet of snow," said Cuomo. "That's part of this changing climate, I believe, that has brought this new extreme weather pattern. And it's something we have to adjust to. It's something that is very costly. It's also something that is very dangerous."

Tuesday morning, as he lifted the travel bans imposed ahead of the storm, Cuomo said that the moves were still "the more prudent course of action." Nor did he complain about the errant forecasts: "I do not criticize weather forecasters," he told reporters.

But Kunkel said it will take more study in the months following the blizzard to find out whether this one can be pinned on the overall trend.

"They're not going to have an answer during the storm itself," he said.

Scientists say we're three minutes from doomsday. Read more here.

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl