As a boy I lived in Owego, in rural upstate New York just north of the Pennsylvania border about halfway to Ohio, in the late 1950s to mid-1960s. Our locale was more moderate in winter than Buffalo, both in temperature and in snowfall.
Nonetheless, it was fairly common to have blizzards that would dump two to three feet of snow, sometimes more, in a day. (A foot of snow is, on average, equivalent to about an inch of rain. Even four or five inches of rain in a day is remarkable but by no means extraordinary.)
Scenes like the one in this AP photo of a Buffalo neighborhood November 19, featured on the National Weather Service’s website, were common in my boyhood. I loved such snowstorms. They were great for sledding and tobogganing, building snow forts, igloos, and vast systems of snow tunnels in my and my friends’ yards, and playing Daniel Boone and Indians in the nearby woods. My parents? Well, they weren’t quite so pleased. Dad, who edited two weekly newspapers, had to get to town to work regardless—which exposed him to considerable danger driving up and down the steep hill on which we lived. He had to be towed out of ditches more than once.
As I recall, one year—I think it was 1965—we had a blizzard on Easter day that dumped probably at least five or six feet of snow where we lived high atop a hill overlooking the Susquehanna River. The drifted snow on the windward side of our house piled much higher than the top of the door, so we could climb out the second-story window right onto the top of the snow. The remains of that snow stayed at the bottom of deep, steep ravines, where sunlight rarely penetrated, clear till the Fourth of July.
That happened during a time of global cooling from about 1940 to the mid-1970s.
Not surprisingly, granted the massive early-season snowstorm that hit the Northeast over the last few days, I received today through an intermediary this request from a reporter for help with a story:
I’m working on a story that would help explain why climate change not only contributes to global warming but also the extreme winter weather events we are seeing already this November. I’d like to look at how the greenhouse effect plays into this, why global warming doesn’t preclude super-cold and snowy winters, and more. Beyond that, I would like to look at the polar vortex and its impacts, El Nino if it applies, lake effect snow and other weather and climate trends and dynamics that play into this discussion.
His opening sentence presupposes precisely what should be questioned: whether “climate change” (code word for anthropogenic global warming, AGW) contributes to “extreme winter weather events,” particularly this one.
First, the IPCC itself has stated, e.g. in its 2012 report Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, that it’s impossible to attribute to recent global warming any increase in the frequency or intensity of extreme weather events.
Second, pretty basic climate science tells us the IPCC was right to say that.
The fraction of a degree of increase in (1)global (2) annual (3) average temperature that’s happened since 1980 (or even since 1850) can’t be modeled to cause anydiscernible changes in (1a) regional or local (2a) short-term (as in a few days to a week or two) (3a) specific temperatures.
Earth’s global, regional, and local climate and weather systems are chaotic non-linear fluid dynamic systems, which by their very nature are prone to large and prolonged swings above and below a mean. While it’s possible to project a little bit into the future for such systems with a little bit confidence—that confidence decreasing as time and geographic extent expand—it’s impossible to project longer into the future with much confidence or precision at all.
Furthermore, such systems can cause all the global, regional, and local fluctuations under discussion that anyone has ever tried to tie to AGW. That includes the polar vortex, the Buffalo area blizzard, and the more widely spread lake effect snow that has fallen over the last few days.
In other words, there’s no need to seek an explanation other than business as usual for what’s going on.
Also, as Dr. Roy Spencer, a climatologist and Senior Fellow for the Cornwall Alliance, reminded me, global warming is supposed to warm the winters the most. The only way for it to cause colder North American winters is for there to be more baroclinic wave activity (warm air headed north, cold air headed south). But baroclinic wave activity is driven by the equator-to-pole temperature contrast, which has decreased in the last 30+ years. So, there is no plausible reason to blame cold winters on global warming … except the desire to blame everything on global warming.
So what’s being experienced in Buffalo right now is, yes, more than average snowfall, but not beyond what one might expect to occur from time to time as just part of the normal fluctuation of the chaotic non-linear fluid dynamic global, regional, local climate and weather systems.