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Yes, Actually, Global Warming Probably Helped Supersize This Weekend's Blizzard

The storm left over 30 people dead, flooded coastal communities worse than Hurricane Sandy, and grounded thousands of flights — and climate scientists say it is consistent with how climate change is expected to intensify winter storms.

by Jake Bleiberg
Jan 25 2016, 8:35pm

Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP

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As one of the largest blizzards ever recorded barreled down on the shore town of Cape May, New Jersey, local restaurateur Keith Laudeman was more worried with rising tides than with falling snow. 

Laudeman and his staff at the Lobster House began moving equipment and cars up to higher ground last Wednesday — but to no avail. By Saturday, as New York City surpassed its record for one-day snowfall, tides in Cape May smashed the high-water mark set during Hurricane Sandy and flooded the restaurant.

"I think with climate change, we can all see it," Laudeman said. "The storms are just a little more evil than they used to be."

The third-generation restaurant owner is not alone in pointing to climate change as the force behind the storm that left at least 34 dead, over 1,500 commercial flights grounded on Monday, and thousands still without power. Lead climate scientists suggest that the historic snowfalls further inland were caused by the unusual warmth of the ocean waters that flooded Laudeman's coastal restaurant — and that these, in turn, are at least partially the result of burning fossil fuels.

This weekend's storm, which left more than two feet of snow on the ground up and down the most densely populated urban corridor in the United States, was kicked off by a high energy disturbance in the mid- to upper-atmosphere, the Jet Stream. This force blended warm air and moisture rising from the Atlantic current, the Gulf Stream, with a layer of Arctic sub-freezing air, producing the temperature contrast that powers often ferocious Nor'easter storms. While this type of blizzard is nothing new, it's particular ferocity was in part the result of unusually warm surface waters in the Atlantic.

(Image via RealClimate/ClimateReanalyzer.org)

According to data from National Center for Environmental Information, the ocean waters along the East Coast are several degrees Fahrenheit warmer than their historic average. While this is partially caused by this year's strong El Niño, Michael Mann, a professor of climate science at Pennsylvania State University, said that rising global temperatures likely also play a role. 

Further, Mann suggested that as global temperatures rise so will the likelihood of extreme storms.

"We expect the Atlantic to continue to warm as we continue to increase greenhouse gas concentrations through fossil fuel burning and other activities," Mann said. "Peer-reviewed scientific studies suggest we are likely to see more of these sorts of coastal storms in the future because of human-caused climate change."

In addition to the El Niño, the warm coastal waters may be influenced by a mass of cold water in the North Atlantic. This icy patch south of Greenland contrasts what has otherwise been the warmest year on record and may be the result of freshwater run-off from the country's melting glaciers. 

Although there is not enough long-term data to identify a trend, Mann said, that this mass of cold water may be disturbing the normal current cycle that moves heat away from the US northeast. 

"It is possible that a slowing of the Gulf Stream, also due to climate change, might be causing waters of the east coast of the US to warm even faster," he said.

Related: It's Official: 2015 Is the Hottest Year on Record

Still, some climate change deniers were quick to use the heavy snowfall as a reason to play down concerns about rising global temperatures. On Thursday, as the storm approached, West Virginia state delegate Rupert Phillips passed out sunscreen to his colleagues. "You've got global warming going on. It's not cold outside. It's in your mind," Phillips reportedly said in a speech from the floor of the state legislature.

For Laudeman, who on Monday was beginning to assess the flood damage to his restaurant, extreme storms are becoming the new normal. 

"It's just something we've got to get used to with climate change," he said.

Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg