Buffalo mega snowstorm tied to climate change?

We wear extreme weather as a badge of honor in Minnesota.

But you have to admit we may be feeling a little “weather inferiority complex” given the incredible snowfall totals near Buffalo, New York. The snowfall in Buffalo is the equivalent of two to three Halloween Mega Storms this week.

Overall snowfall totals in the Buffalo mega storm may approach 70 to 100 inches in some areas. That’s right, the next wave of lake-effect driven snowfall is on the way to western New York ready to deliver additional snowfall totals of 20 to 30 inches.

If you just can’t picture what 3 to 5 feet of snow would look like in your neighborhood, check out this drone fly by from West Seneca, New York.

Note to self: I need to get one of these for the Weather Lab.

So all that snow… in November is certainly proof that climate change is bunk right? No way you get that kind of snow if the climate is actually warming?

Not so fast.

Lake-effect snow and the climate change connection

Yes, it sounds counter-intuitive. How can you have more snow, earlier in the season with a warming climate?

An oversimplified explanation goes like this.

  • Warmer climate = warmer water in Lake Erie
  • Arctic warming = a wavier jet stream pushing unseasonably cold arctic air mass into the eastern U.S.
  • Unusually cold air masses and unusually warm lake water temps = extreme temperature contrast of 50 degrees between lake surface and air mass
  • Extreme temperature contrast = more intense lake effect snowfall rates of 3 to 5 inches per hour with 60-plus inch snowfall totals

Now a more thorough explanation with supporting data.

First the warm water. An unusually warm bubble of water for November at the eastern end of Lake Erie helped fuel this extreme lake-effect event.

Average Lake Erie water temp for November 19th is 47 degrees. You can see the bubble of 50 to 54 degree water just west (upstream) of Buffalo in the image above

Longer-term trends show Lake Erie has become measurably warmer. The reduction in winter ice cover actually produces an increase in lake-effect snow as more moisture is available for incoming arctic air to tap and wring out onshore in intense lake-effect driven snow plumes.

Environmental Protection Agency

Lake-effect snowfall in the Great Lakes is increasing, even as non lake-effect snowfall is steady to falling in a warming climate.

Lake-effect snowfall for various cities on the Great Lakes. AMS Journal of Climate November 2003. Burnett, et al.

Long-term trends show an increase in winter totals from these extreme precipitation events.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Slate’s Eric Holtahus connects the dots on how the State of New York has recognized that increased lake-effect snowfall is part of a warming climate for now.

Earlier this year, New York state updated its assessment of statewide climate change impacts, essentially giving a forecast of the future of lake-effect snowfall in the state:

Annual ice cover has decreased 71 percent on the Great Lakes since 1973; models suggest this decrease will lead to increased lake-effect snow in the next couple of decades through greater moisture availability (Burnett et al. 2003). By mid-century, lake-effect snow will generally decrease as temperatures below freezing become less frequent (Kunkel et al. 2002).

The high ice extent of the 2013-2014 winter highlights the fact that natural variability is expected to continue, even as long-term trends gradually shift the statistics in favor of low-ice winters.

Bottom line? There is increasing evidence to show that Buffalo’s lake-effect mega storm is another example of an extreme weather event with a climate change connection.