Finding Nemo

Climate experts have pointed out that Nemo, the very bad nor’easter that just hit the Northeastern US and Maritimes, is partly an effect of global warming. Some meteorologists have responded with an incorrect response, a recitation of a now tired and useless mumbling retort that I’m afraid may even have it origin among scientists who should know better, and at the very least was kept alive by them for far too long: “Well, you can’t really attribute any given weather event to climate change.” Some regular people who are not climate scientists have repeated that faleshood as well. Then there are people making the claim that a bad winter storm is proof that climate change is not real or reversing or some other such thing. This of course is wrong at so many levels that if a scientist (even a non-climate scientist, just anyone who values critical thinking) said it they would be fired and sent off the humanities in a second. I will also mention this, because it helps us to get at a causal mechanism for what is going on here: Many people have stated, quite clearly on TV and Facebook and all those other good places, that “The Upper Midwest” or more particularly “Minnesota” gets more snow than Massachusetts or the Northeastern US. This is incorrect. Plain, simply, untrue. But that people believe this tell us something about people’s beliefs about the weather and helps explain some things. By the way, I’ve lived in New York, Massachusetts and Minnesota and I can tell you that people who live in the Northeast think Minnesota gets more snow, and people in Minnesota think Minnesota gets more snow. So everybody is wrong and in the same way. This isn’t just a mater of each region thinking they get the most snow.

And yes, as I’ve implied, all these things are connected and I’ll show how. The conclusion of this essay, though, will be the following points:

1) Storms like Sandy (remember Sandy?) and Nemo gain strength from the warm surface waters of the ocean. The warmer the water the stronger the storm, all else being equal. Nemo is stronger than it would otherwise be because of anthropogenic global warming.

2) Storms like Sandy and Nemo in some cases would have blown out and not even formed at some early stage in their life had it not been for the extra warm conditions caused by anthropogenic climate change.

3) Anthropogenic climate change has changed the water cycle. The moisture that is brought into the air to fall later as rain or snow is more abundant than it otherwise would be, making storms more severe than they otherwise would be.

4) Storm surges along coastal regions are higher because of the effect mentioned above in #1 and because of sea level rise.

5) The previously mentioned effects are more or less universal across time, space, and events. They affect the entire weather system of the planet. So, the sentence “you can’t attribute a given storm to global warming or climate change” is utterly stupid and from now on if you say it that makes you stupid so just don’t say it. Meanwhile this sentence … “It is impossible to remove the effects of anthropogenic climate change on any storm. All storms include a certain amount of energy and moister added because of climate change” … that sentence is correct. Use that one instead thank you very much.

And now, on to the (folk) psychology of people getting it wrong.

Let’s start with snowfall in Minnesota. Minnesota is famous for its weather, and there are a few reasons for that. Ironically one of the reasons is that there have been times when things went terribly wrong in Minnesota because of a lack of information or preparedness. So, it’s a little poignant to see people today from Minnesota complaining about Bostonites fretting about the storm in advance. For instance, one storm came through at the start of duck hunting season and caused the death of 145 people in the Upper Midwest. It is known as the Armistice Day Blizzard, and came on November 11th and 12th, 1940. It affected a huge region of the upper midwest including Minnesota and Michigan. Nobody saw it coming, and it involved ice, slush and deep snow. Duck hunters got stranded in the woods and died of hypothermia. Many saved themselves by finding cabins and starting up the wood stoves. For this reason, to this day we have a tradition of not locking our cabins in Minnesota just in case someone needs to save themselves during the winter. We’re not being nice. We know they’ll make their way into the cabin no matter what. We’re just trying to save money on a new lock.

Then there is the Halloween Blizzard of 1991. That’s the one everyone mentions whenever it starts snowing early in the year. “Sure hope this one ins’t another Halloween Blizzard again, remember that one, Ollie?”

Also, historically (but no longer, given global warming) Minnesota has been cold. Many many days below zero F occur in the winter. Cold enough for long enough to get on the national news. One year it was way below –20F across the entire state, and windy, and the governor simply closed all the schools at once. They still talk about that. Incessantly.

So Minnesota has had these events and so it has a rep. A bad winter rep. But people confuse “winter” with “Cold and Snow” with emphasis on “and.” People can’t separate one aspect of winter (cold) from another (snow). Also, apparently, they cant separate freakish early heavy snow (November and October storms) with amounts of snow. So, because of national news reports, regional culture, and ignorance, everybody in Massachusetts thinks Minnesota has really freakin’ snowy winters, and everyone in Minnesota thinks people in Massachusetts have to suck it up when it snows, get used to it, they clearly don’t deal with snow very often, etc. etc.

But here’s the facts. First, you can’t compare “Twin Cities” with “Boston.” You know, that right? The Twin cities consists of minimally three counties covering 1,222 square miles of land. It is inland, continental. An airport randomly located in the Twin Cities would do a reasonable job of sampling weather there. Boston is tiny. It is less than 90 square miles and has an airport right there in the city, on an island in the harbor. The weather data for an island in a harbor in the Atlantic is not comparable to weather inland even one mile. To include a comparable area one has to add a lot of extra land to “Boston” which is what people do anyway. I tell people “oh, yeah I lived in Boston for 17 years” but really, I lived there for 6 months. The rest of the time I lived in Cambridge, Somerville or Arlington. All of those would fit comfortably within Minneapolis alone, let alone the Twin Cities and suburbs.

So, to make the comparison fair, we are going to take the weather data from Minneapolis (using the airport) and compare it to Boston, Blue Hills (a few miles from the airport) and Worcester. I’m keeping the data all separate so you can struggle with nuances of elevation, distance from the sea, and other factors, if you like. But the picture is pretty clear.

There is more precipitation in the east than in the midwest, except right near the great lakes. The three stations in “Boston” – Logan Airport, Blue Hills Observatory, and Worcester – have recorded annual averages 41.5, 49.0, and 47.8 inches per year of H2O. Minneapolis-Saint Paul records close to half of that: 28.3 inches. Much, much drier. I have a feeling that would surprise some people.

Regarding snow, the numbers are closer because precipitation falls as snow in the Twin Cities for a longer period because it is colder for a longer period, and there is even rain during the winter sometimes in the Boston area. Here are the numbers:

The three stations in the Boston area show annual average snowfall as 42.5, 60, and 67.6 inches. The low number for the airport is because of that rain. Many storms have rain on the coast and snow inland. The total annual average snowfall for Minneapolis-Saint Paul is 49.7 inches. That’s a little more than Logan Aiport, but less than the Boston Area generally.

So, no the Twin Cities does not get more snow. Boston gets more snow. And, I might add, they do a better job of clearing it, using an entirely different system than the one employed in the Twin Cities and Minnesota.

Disproving the myth helps us to undo the concept that “winter” = “snow” and “winter” = “cold” in the same exact way. There are places where winter means lots of cold and some snow, other places where winter means lots of snow but not as much cold. And there are places with not much of ether or with a lot of both. Duluth gets whopping snow falls and is cold. On the other side of the great lakes, there is even more snow than in Boston, and it is colder than Boston, but not as cold as Minneapolis. It’s complex.

The lesson here is simple: Climate and weather is complex, and if you do not really know the data and mechanisms, it would be better to refrain from drawing conclusions about the nature of climate change and then broadcasting them into the great sea of ignorance known in the trade as “Americans and their Weather.”

But this brings us to yet another falsehood. If it is so complex, how can you really ever say anything about anything???11??

A friend of a friend said to that friend this about the assertion that Nemo was climate change enhanced (CCE). “Weather is complex. Climate has never been stable. Can you name a more random set of data?”

And that elicited this blog post: Opinion: Record snow in a warming world? The science is clear which says, among other things,

Warmer temperatures cause more water to evaporate into the atmosphere, and warmer air holds more water than cooler air. The air’s “water-holding capacity,” in fact, rises about 7 percent with each Celsius degree of warming. This results in air that becomes super-saturated with water, often bringing drenching rainfall followed by flooding or – if it is cold enough – heavy and intense snowfall.

There is a lot more interesting stuff than that in that blog post, but that’s the key point I want to make here.

Climate and weather may be more complex than you were thinking, and no, there is not a correlation between cold and snow. There is a correlation between cold and latitude, cold and altitude, and cold and distance from ocean, and moister and snow, and moisture and nearness to ocean, but then there is the Gulf of Mexico and warped jet streams affected by continental mountain waves to take into account, and warm vs. cool currents on the surface of the North Atlantic and complex contributions from Pacific moisture and high pressure systems to the north that steer storms one way during certain times of the year vs. another and that change over time and we haven’t even mentioned ENSO cycles and other effects. So there’s all that.

Then, there’s the fact that even though it is all as complex as heck we do understand stuff. The current shifts in the nature of storms was predicted, it is understood, and it is global warming. And all of the effects I just blathered on about in the last paragraph are changed by the introduction of additional CO2 and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, by humans, in ways that make storms more severe.

And kill people. Those are people we killed with our power plants and SUV’s. In the case of Nemo, because of the very preparedness that annoyed Midwesterners, hardly anybody died. Just four people, in car accidents. During the Great Nor’Easter of 1978, a similar nor’easter but not as strong, and the start of a series of strong storms we’ve had in that region, “…Some 2,500 houses were reported seriously damaged or destroyed and 54 people were killed, many from fallen electric wires. Several people were found dead in downtown Providence, particularly in the vicinity of the central police station, who may have died trying to seek shelter. Ten-year-old Peter Gosselin, of Uxbridge, Massachusetts, disappeared in the deep snow just feet from his home’s front door but was not found until three weeks later..” (source)

That storm truly took people by surprise, but it was not the worst storm people have experienced since then. These big storms every couple-few years or so have become routine in this new age of climate change enhanced weather events.

Here’s more about Nemo:

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.

Nemo the storm may well have happened with a lower amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, but maybe not. Overall, there will be and have been more storms because of global warming. Nemo is, simply put, unequivocally, really and truly, you’ve got to be kidding me if you don’t get this, really really truly stronger than it otherwise would have been because of warmer sea surface temperatures (caused by global warming) and a steepened curve on the water cycle because of global warming. Because. Of. Global. Warming. We know this. Stop not knowing it, you, you are starting to look like …. well, you get the point.

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Well written article and it is educational. Thanks.

By NewEnglandBob (not verified) on 10 Feb 2013 #permalink

Very fine article greg. And yes, it is about time people stopped repeating, "You can't attribute....blah, blah, blah." I'm pleased that right wing word monger presuaded everyone to start using climate change rather than global warming. That's exactly what is going on--anthropogenic climate change.

I do wish that comment sections had spell checkers.

Nice article. Other than the fact that your Mass vs Minnesota statistics are completely wrong:

Duluth, Minnesota averages 80.7 inches of snow per year
International Falls = 65.5 inches per year
Minneapolis = 49.9

Boston averages 42.2 inches per year
Worcester = 67.6

So, you see, it is in fact you who is wrong about the MA vs MN are "plain, simply, untrue." How are we to believe the rest of your knowledge if you base an entire article off of inaccurate climatological statistics?

I'll see your Duluth and raise you the equivilant in the NE (a city in the snow belt): Buffalo!! 91.3 inches of snow a year.

Have you been up to Caribou? 111 inches.

Min is about the size of most of New England so that counts too.

Interesting give and take with Jeff. Duluth's 80.7" is substantially aided by Duluth's location on the shore of Lake Superior as is Buffalo's by virtue of Lake Erie. The premise of proximity to water and high snowfall seems to hold!

By John Olson (not verified) on 10 Feb 2013 #permalink

Here in Georgia I had flowers bloom out on Feb. 6th. There was a bloom on the apple tree in December. I don't know how common this kind of thing is but it looked really weird. At least it is easier to deal with than blizzards.

Storm tracks also make a big difference. Two or three years ago, metro DC got four major snowstorms in one winter. Only one of those four produced a significant snowfall at my location (New Hampshire Seacoast); the other three passed too far south. On other occasions, the storm will pass west of me, and we will see rain here despite the snow in New York City (the Blizzard of 1888 is a historical example; it was a major snow event for New York City, but in Boston it was only a routine snowfall because so much of the precipitation fell as rain).

Part of the reason for the perception of Minneapolis as snowier than Boston is that in Minnesota, being colder, any snow that falls in December and January tends to stay on the ground until March or even April. Coastal New England does not always keep its snow cover. Ski areas in New England play on a similar perception: their business is better when it snows in Boston, because people assume (often incorrectly) that the ski areas got even more snow. There is a correlation between mountainous terrain and snowfall: storms tend to drop more precipitation on the windward slopes (and downwind areas tend to be much drier, as can be seen in the transition from rainforest to desert as you move inland from the Washington coast). But most of the storms that produce snow in Boston approach from the wrong direction for that effect to be of much help to the ski resorts.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Feb 2013 #permalink

I liked your article, and i do believe in global warming. But i was wondering if you had specific data about the water temperatures that enhanced Nemo, or if that was just a general fact you were presenting.

Though I am in school now in Western Mass., I am from the Boston Area and it was interesting to see your comparison of Boston and Minnesota, seeing as I would have promoted the myth that they had more precipitation,

Jennifer: Yes, good question. I said that in the blog post because I communicated with various climate scientists who had mentioned it but I didn't have a handy link to include.

Here is a map of SST anomalies around the time of the storm:

Red and yellow represents more than expected/normal temperature, and you can see that the US East Coast and Maritimes have plenty of extra heat as does the North Atlantic in general. The region has been anomalysly warm for weeks, probably all winter.

Globally sea surface temperatures pretty much everywhere have been high. The ocean itself is significantly warmer over the last few decades than previously, and that is reflected in SST's in part.

When you see the typical global warming temperature graph, that is a combination of sea surface temperature and air temperature (usually, not always) because the heat that is out there is constantly transferring between the two.

This has resulted in more storminess in that region.…

We have much less data on the deeper ocean temperatures but there are indications that the deep sea is also warming. Considering the heat holding capacities of the sea and its volume, this is impressive. One concern is that the ocean is taking a large amount of the CO2 and heat, and once it reaches a certain level will not accept much more (I've oversimplified that)

This article was a good read and had many good points that it stressed. Ive definitely noticed myself over the past few years that the weather in the winter has changed. It seems there are more milder temperature days that weren't there before. I live in Eastern MD; growing up 10 years ago I remember not necessarily having more snow then than now, but having a greater number of weaker storms. I also dont remember the temperature fluctuating so much. Seems like in my area the winter now is filled with fluctuating temps, accompanied by a few massive storms caused by rising global temps.