Smothering Snow, Spiking Sea Levels, and Other Climate Plot Twists: Expecting the Unexpected in the Northeast

, senior analyst, Climate & Energy Program | February 27, 2015, 5:34 pm EDT
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When I first started digging into climate impacts, I used to think that the northeastern U.S., where I live, was a pretty good place to have landed. I still think so. It’s unlikely we’ll see historic mega-droughts, like those forecast by some for the U.S. Southwest. We’ll see heat that we’re far from prepared for, but it’ll be hotter still in the South. Our forests are expected to change, but they’re not under pressure like those in the Mountain West, nor are they currently experiencing rising risks of wildfire. We have our own problems, to be sure, like coastal vulnerability and trends in extreme precipitation.

But this week in the news there are two new studies that reminded me to expect the unexpected. While we understand the general pathway of change, the shorter-term directions the climate can take along the way can take us by surprise.

Exhibit A: Our winter

As of this writing, 101 inches or about 8 feet of snow has fallen in Boston over a two-month period. As the Washington Post recently summarized: “Boston is on pace for near-record snowfall for Anchorage, and has already eclipsed the 30-day snowfall record for Buffalo — a city known for its intense lake-effect fueled snowstorms.”

Boston commuters wait for a bus near Kenmore Square. Maybe this is photoshopped, maybe not; no one’s heard from Boston for weeks now. Photo: Geoffrey Brailsford

Boston commuters wait for a bus near Kenmore Square. Maybe this is photoshopped, maybe not; no one’s heard from Boston for weeks now. Photo: Geoffrey Brailsford

Are you one of the poor souls experiencing this winter in the greater Boston area? If so, you’ve done at least two of these three things: (1) stopped thinking about going anywhere, because really, how? (2) taken up wide-eyed head shaking when it comes to the weather, because really, what’s there to say? And (3) lost track of the weeks altogether, because how can spring be coming if it’s always 10 degrees?

Plus this year the groundhog bit a guy. If you’re not one of us, trust us: winter’s been a beast.

But at least it’s a rare event — I’ll probably never see this kind of thing again in my lifetime. Right? Sorry, my weary friends, but not necessarily.

New research tries to make sense of events like the Northeast’s frigid, snowy winter. While we know that not all cold spells are caused by the now nefarious “polar vortex,” this new work suggests that warming temperatures in the Arctic are weakening the boundary between the Arctic north and the warmer mid-latitudes. That weakening, in turn, appears to be slowing the jetstream’s normally speedy west-to-east course, sending it instead on meandering northern and southern waves.

A friend of mine on her sidewalk. Not photoshopped. Since this photo was taken an additional 2 feet of snow have fallen. Photo: Sean Brown

A friend of mine on her sidewalk. Not photoshopped. Since this photo was taken an additional 2 feet of snow have fallen. Photo: Sean Brown

Deep southerly dips of the jet stream allow icy Arctic air to extend southward. And in some instances, these loopy wave patterns hold in place for a week at a time. Or forever; it feels like forever at the moment. We saw this last year across the Midwest and Northeast, minus all the snow. (This year’s snowstorms and record accumulation appears to be attributable to record warm North Atlantic waters meeting our meandering jet stream along the New England coast.) There are plenty of other ideas in the mix, too.

(It’s worth pulling my head out of the Northeast long enough to acknowledge the astounding contrast between our winter and what’s happening on the West Coast and in Alaska, with record high temperatures and record low snowfall. As my colleague, Robert Mera, puts it we have two influential climate patterns at play here, in addition to the Arctic: the Pacific North American Pattern and the North Atlantic Oscillation, both natural patterns, but both in a positive phase, strongly influenced by record warm ocean temperatures, and “acting like bullies” as they escort the Arctic air southward.)

With the Arctic only getting warmer is there reason to think we won’t see this kind of cold and snow again? Hope springs eternal. In Ode to the West Wind, Shelley wrote “O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” But weaken that wind and warm our oceans, and yes, spring can feel very far behind.

These images help illustrate the temperatures that can fill in behind a loopy Jetstream. Images: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center (globe); NOAA (map)

These images help illustrate the temperatures that can fill in behind a loopy Jetstream. Images: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center (globe); NOAA (map)

Exhibit B: Local sea levels

And then there are our seas. If you live in low-lying parts of the Northeast U.S., you know that coastal floods are happening more often during high tides. We released a report about this last fall. But amidst the data we used is an interesting phenomenon, recently explored in a new study.

About 6 years ago, the Northeast U.S. and parts of Canada saw a rapid, dramatic spike in sea levels – roughly 4 inches, and 5 outside of NYC. The cause? The new thinking is that the Gulf Stream, the ocean current which normally moves along the coast of North America, transporting warm tropical waters northeast, hit a bottleneck of sorts and that the water essentially piled up. But how?

Normally, when the Gulf Stream travels north, it meets with cold Arctic waters, cools, sinks and moves back toward the tropics, in a process widely thought of as the ocean “conveyor belt” (see figure). But in 2009, parts of the North Atlantic were unusually warm, so the current failed to cool, sink, and move along as usual, slowing by some 30 percent. Persistent winds served to drive this “extra” water ashore. Researchers believe that the warmer Arctic contributed to this spike in sea level.

The spike dropped after a roughly two-year period, but water levels have not returned to what they were previously. Such a spike is considered very unusual. But with sea level rising at an accelerating rate and the Arctic continuing to warm, they could become a feature of our coastal future.

Print

Warming Arctic waters could mean a slowdown in the pace at which the Gulf Stream moves northward, cools, and sinks. New research suggests that warm waters in 2009 contributed to a large short-term spike in sea levels in the U.S. Northeast. (Credit: climate.gov)

Didn’t see THAT coming

What these two emerging pictures mean to me is that the storyline of climate change in the Northeast that I’ve had in mind probably has many more plot twists than I’d imagined. This is probably true in lots of places.

Yes, some underlying trends are quite clear: global average temperature is rising; if we remain on our current emissions pathway, we can expect staggering increases later this century; globally, sea level is rising at an accelerating rate and can’t simply be shut off. But whatever emissions pathway we end up taking, we will see continued changes in our climate, and some of them may take us by surprise because our climate is dynamic and complex.

Also dynamic and complex: us. 2015 can be – needs to be – a big year for climate action. I’m hoping it’s the chapter where we surprise ourselves, start bending the emissions curve in a serious way, and pre-empt those big, dangerous climate plot twists.

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  • Joe

    Sorry, but this article is arguing that a +NAO is somehow responsible for the cold. Um, no.

  • Paul

    Look up Geoeenigneering….. That may explain some of the global warming problem.

  • Mike Hugh-jass

    The piece of the puzzle I’ve been hunting for is if the current pattern we’re seeing of a warm West coast and East coast Snowmageddon will be more frequent or even typical, or are deep cold troughs in the jet stream completely random.

    In other words, would an arctic dipole pattern tend to position itself in relation to Siberia and Greenland (which would still have an albedo) with an open water pole, or is it random?

  • drutter

    The bottom line is that global warming is real. It is here, now. And if we don’t make some dramatic changes now it is going to be to late to make them later. Man is on the verge of destroying man!

  • Hannibal EnemyofRome

    This is typical nonsense. No warming is visible over at least the last 10 to 15 years. In the late 1970’s climate specialists where absolutely certain we were cooling. Think of the field day this type of anti fossil fuel fanatic would have if the winter were warmer than usual?! They win, of course, either way. I actually don’t dispute climate change. The earth has been hotter, around 1100 AD, and much cooler, about 15,000 years ago. The Earth’s climate is constantly changing. We live in an interglacial period, a good point to remember. In Greenland, in 1100, the Vikings could grow barley…it is still not warm enough to do that today….heating opens vast areas of Russia and Canada for agriculture. An ice age will bring vast chaos and the brink of extinction.

    • Joe

      Are you saying that it’s ok to intentionally accelerate ourselves into a hostile climate regime just because it used to be similarly warm 1,000 years ago? lol? What point are you trying to make? If the Vikings were warm, then it’s ok to disrupt modern society on purpose? What?

      • Hannibal EnemyofRome

        You have no historic sense at all? What is your point? Was man made global warming the cause of the medieval warm period? Do you know what the Milankovitch cycles are? Are you a thinking person or just a reflexive liberal prick?

  • Ann Larsen Whittier

    It is wonderful to have such a clear picture of what’s going on in my region of the country. Keep up the good work Ms. Spanger-Siegfried.

  • Colette
    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Quite the weather, Colette! Hope all are safe and sound.

  • Jim Fisher

    I write scientific reports too. I use words like “could” and “suggest” and “likely” because a full understanding of the subject is unknown. What I have observed though is an entrenched jet stream taking moisture off the Atlantic, warmed by normal Gulf Stream flow.
    Entrenched weather patterns are nothing new. Remember Midwestern flooding in 1993?.
    The conveyor belt of ocean currents depicted shows east of Greenland a normally sinking saltwater. Could melt shedding off of Greenland’s surface be diluting and thus creating a lower saline, less dense layer of water that will not sink as expected? Why doesn’t the graphic show the current that travels along northern Europe and Asia?
    Just some thoughts.

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Those are great questions, Jim. As you point out, this particular graphic gives a really simplified view of the major currents. I don’t have answers, but am glad you’re touching on some of the complexities at play. Thanks.

  • It’s NOT a new theory. This theory, one that I as a scientist has prescribed to since 2001, was originally a much criticized and maligned theory. And while the jury is still out it sure looks like all those who were the severe critics are now “rediscoverying” this idea. Look, we all know that climate modeling is nearly impossible with all of the potential unknown variables. What we do know is that the climate is changing, and yes, generally heating up, but some areas will have different climatic impacts. Hold on to your hat! We are in for quite a ride.

    • Thanks for this perspective, Bill. It’s good to know about the earlier work you mention. Hat held on to!

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Thanks for this perspective, Bill. It’s good to know about the earlier work you mention. Hat held on to!

    • What kind of scientist are you? The kind of scientist that, say, is an AGU member in the climatology section? Or the kind that I am? Which is to say, they kind that is a scientist, but not a climate scientist. Or, the kind that calls himself a scientist, but, well, isn’t actually a scientist at all?

      • I am a Ecologist that teaches graduate school ecology and am an independent consultant as well. I am trained in Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment. I’ve been an Ecologist for more than 30 years. As you might guess climate science is pertinent to a wide variety of disciplines. Mine happens to be biological sciences. You can call me a climate scientist if you want to. I refer to myself as Bill.

      • So — like me — not an AGU member. Not someone who has done original research in climatology or physical oceanography. Not someone who actually has a deep understanding of what climate modeling can, or cannot, say.

        Like me, you are merely another interested amateur. That, and three bucks, will get you a small latté. But it does not grant you relevant expertise to dismiss an entire field of research.

      • Joe

        All you have to do to be an AGU member is register and pay a fee, lol.

        Filling out this page: https://membership.agu.org/join-renew/

        does not make you a climate scientist.

      • That’s not the point. The point is that you are not a working climatologist. If you were, you’d likely be a member of the major relevant professional society — just as I’m a member of the Biophysical Society and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. These are signifiers of active involvement in a field.

      • Biologyteacher100

        Biologists are publishing quite a lot of climate research in journals such as Global Change Biology. I published a climate article in Limnology and Oceanography, although climate is not the main part of my research program. Biologists are not involved in modeling the physical atmosphere, but it seems insulting to call us “interested amateurs.” Climate change is causing rapid changes in food chains, species migrations and ranges. Even if we were not measuring temperature using thermometers, the ecological changes are sufficient to show that the climate is warming rapidly

      • If you’re an aquatic ecologist, and you’re commenting on the ability of climate modelers to do their job correctly, an interested amateur is precisely what you are. My spouse, by the way, is an aquatic ecologist who has a lot of graduate coursework in physical oceanography. I’d say she’s an *informed* amateur. But still, in that field, an amateur.

  • Ray Del Colle

    The Boston Photo (?) … is really from a mountain retreat in Japan … please be accurate … I am surprised … that there is an obvious error right at the outset of your article … One would be skeptical what ever else is to follow … Google “Bus in Snow Japan”
    i am very concerned …

    • Ray, I’m sorry about the confusion. That photo isn’t Boston. It is photoshopped (as I allude to in the caption) and is meant to be a joke. It made the rounds on social media in the area — we’re trying, if not always succeeding, to laugh at our predicament!

    • iggyaa

      I believe that photo was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, as is exhibited by her pointing out that it is likely photoshopped – note the Cisco sign in the upper right.. But its a good point, there are plenty of real photos of the Boston snow that could be used.

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Ray, I’m sorry about the confusion. That photo isn’t Boston. It is
      photoshopped (as I tried to allude to in the caption) and is meant to be funny.
      It made the rounds on social media in the area — we’re trying, if not
      always succeeding, to laugh at our predicament!

    • Priscilla Ballou

      The caption lets you know it’s probably photoshopped and certainly a joke.

    • Humor detector requires re-calibration.

    • drutter

      The bus in this picture has yellow above the front bumper and a sign in the upper left background with a red triangle…looks like it may be for a Citgo gas station sign. I don’t think this is the same bus as the one in Japan – I’m just saying…