For the second time in less than six months a “once-in-a-lifetime” weather catastrophe struck the U.S. East Coast, leaving America’s most populous region and economic heart paralyzed and struggling to recover.
And just like the unimaginable devastation caused by last October’s Superstorm Sandy, last weekend’s massive blizzard has the disturbing fingerprints of`climate change all over it.
After 2012 delivered nearly a dozen billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States, the new year is already off to a fast — and equally expensive — start by unleashing perhaps the worst winter storm in decades to hit parts of New England and parts of Long Island. Coming on the heels of Sandy and an unusually mild winter, the February snowstorm was just another chapter in what has been a wild meteorological ride for the entire country since last fall.
The weekend monster dumped several feet of snow across at least five states, killed at least 15 people in the US and Canada, left more than 600,000 people without power, and will likely result in hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and cleanup costs. The fast-moving system, loaded with unusual amounts of moisture for a mid-winter coastal storm, was something local residents and officials across the affected states had “never seen before.”
More than 220,000 homes and businesses remain remained without power Sunday as the U.S. Northeast and Canada dug out from a blizzard that dumped up to 3 feet (a meter) of snow on the most densely populated part of the region. The death toll was at 15.
Some motorists had to be rescued after spending hours stuck in wet, heavy snow. Utilities in some hard-hit New England states predicted that the storm could leave some customers in the dark at least until Tuesday. About 650,000 lost power in eight states at the height of the storm.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said county official Steven Bellone of New York’s Long Island, where hundreds of drivers had been caught on highways by Friday’s fast-moving storm. Local police said Sunday that all known abandoned cars were searched and no one needing medical help was found.
Making matters worse, a shot of warmer temperatures in areas days after they received as much as 40 inches of snow could create a flooding nightmare on top of blizzard recovery, a task made more difficult considering many are still saddled with untouched destruction caused by Sandy last October.
And the Northeast is not the only section of the country dealing with unusually active weather for this time of year. An unprecedented EF4 tornado leveled parts of Hattiesburg, Mississippi earlier this week, injuring dozens of people who were not expecting a spring-like twister in the first days of February.
As has been the case for most of the wacky and wild weather that now seems to regularly engulf the US, scientists point to rapidly accelerating climate change as the most prominent culprit. As the planet warms, the seas rise, and man-made activities change the structure of our atmosphere and weather patterns, extreme events are becoming the “new normal” even as Americans are woefully unprepared for such dramatic shifts.
In the case of the East Coast blizzard, there is no question that climatic changes exacerbated by man-made warming contributed to the power, severity and unusual timing of the deadly storm.
Experts point to one factor in particular that helped to determine the strength and record-setting nature of last weekend’s spectacular storm; higher moisture content. Unseasonably warm temperatures in certain areas of the country — a heat wave that now basically extends year-round — and higher sea levels portends more moisture and energy for storms to tap and generate, like Sandy last year or this month’s blizzard.
Michael Mann, a climatologist who directs the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, compared a major storm like Nemo — or Hurricane Irene or Superstorm Sandy, for that matter — to a basketball slam-dunk with a lower net.
“If you take the basketball court and raise it a foot, you’re going to see more slam-dunks,” Mann said. “Not every dunk is due to raising the floor, but you’ll start seeing them happen more often then they ought to.”
The two key ingredients in a big snow: just cold-enough temperatures and a lot of moisture. Combine the chilled air converging on the East with the massive moisture coming from the Gulf of Mexico region and you’ve got the “perfect setup for a big storm,” Kevin Trenberth, of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, told The Huffington Post in an email.
As Trenberth explained, the ideal temperature for a blizzard is just below freezing — just cold enough to crystalize water into snow. Below that, the atmosphere’s ability to hold moisture to create those snowflakes drops by 4 percent for every one degree Fahrenheit fall in temperature.
“In the past, temperatures at this time of year would have been a lot below freezing,” Trenberth said. In other words, it’s been too cold to snow heavily. But that may become less of an obstacle for snow in the Northeast.
Michael Oppenheimer, a climate change expert at Princeton University, said global warming is increasing extreme storms. “Storms like this tend to be heavier than they used to be,” he told HuffPost. “That’s a fact.”
Whether or not single events can be definitely linked to climate change is not the point. A tornado in Mississipp or a large snowfall in Connecticut are not “caused” by climate change. Rather, every aspect of weather and climate are enhanced or affected by global warming and the changes it is wreaking on the planet.
One scientist likens it to an athlete on steroids. Taking steroids may not directly “cause” every home run hit by a baseball player taking them, but the effects are spread more broadly over that player’s performance, making their achievements more dramatic and extreme.
What cannot be disputed is that our climate on “steroids” is changing life and economic reality for millions of Americans. Jeff Masters of Wunderground details the consequences of climate change on specific destructive forces like storm surge, a hazard becoming significantly worse for highly populated and economically vital coastal regions of the country that are now taking on new threats thanks to warming. He categorically proves that surge is worse thanks to climate change, and that future big storms like Sandy or the February blizzard will become ever more costly and dangerous.
Helping to make the point that it’s not even so much the frequency of extreme weather as how severe and extreme it is when it hits is another eye opening statistic detailed from the experts at Wunderground. Noting the back-to-back blows absorbed by the Northeast in less than six months, they termed it “unsettling” that “two of the most significant storms in the past 300 years to strike the northeastern quadrant of the U.S. have occurred within just four months from one another.”
With the East coast winter storm as the backdrop, there has likely never been a more appropriate time for climate change to maintain a significant presence at a presidential State of the Union, and President Obama is set to do just that. A month after using his inaugural speech to promote a new agenda devoted to deflecting the worst effects of warming, the president will pitch a “renewed effort” to combat climate change in Tuesday night’s address to Congress and the nation.
The first term of the Obama administration was nothing short of disastrous as described by most environmental activists in terms of climate change. A cap-and-trade bill failed to pass as a centerpiece of a limited effoert to curb CO2 emisions, and fossil fuel development grew exponentially as the president touted his record on oil, coal and gas during his reelection campaign.
Now, with a progressive base ready to assert itself and the impact of extreme weather costing precious lives and dollars in the United States and around the globe, there is greater hope that the president will commit to a substantial agenda on climate change and use the State of the Union to galvanize the country.
President Barack Obama in next week’s State of the Union speech will lay out a renewed effort to combat climate change that is expected to include using his authority to curb emissions from existing power plants, people who have talked to the administration about its plans said.
The action, building on a pledge in the second inaugural address, fits within Mr. Obama’s larger strategy of making full use of his executive authority in areas where Congress is putting up obstacles to his agenda.
The speech, to be delivered Tuesday, isn’t finished.
Mr. Obama is likely to signal he wants to move beyond proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules on emissions from new power plants and tackle existing coal-fired plants, people familiar with the administration’s plans said.