Climate change row as snow storm batters USA

Making a pattern: Last year an even bigger storm in New York saw 27 inches of snow in 24 hours.

Storm Stella has brought chaos to millions in America’s north-east. Scientists are increasingly convinced climate change plays a role in extreme weather events. How confident can they be?

Schools are closed. Thousands of flights have been cancelled. Foreign leaders have changed their travel plans.

A cyclone named Storm Stella has hit the northeastern USA with a vengeance. Last night meteorologists expected 60mph winds, coastal flooding, 20 inches of snow in New York City and possibly thundersnow.

Yesterday state governors issued travel bans and declared states of emergency. Andrew Cuomo of New York advised residents to stock food for seven to ten days and an emergency supply of bottled water.

The US weather service called the storm “life-threatening”. Forecasters said Stella was an “absolute crusher” which would “puke snow”. A blizzard warning was issued to about 50m people.

Stella is expected to be the second biggest March storm in New York since records began. Last year the city saw its biggest snowstorm on record. And eight of the 10 biggest snowstorms in US history have taken place since 1996.

As carbon dioxide builds up in the atmosphere, the Earth’s climate is changing: 2016 was the hottest year on record, for the third time in a row. And research shows that events such as storms, droughts and floods are becoming more frequent.

As Stella broke out, some drew a link between the wider pattern and the individual event. “We’re not just getting freak weather anymore,” wrote meteorologist Eric Holthaus on the science website Grist. “We’re getting freak seasons.”

The theory is controversial — and especially hard to apply to complex weather systems such as cyclones. Some have also criticised forecasters for over-dramatising their predictions and creating “hype” around extreme weather.

But last year a major panel in America said it had “high confidence” that global warming was helping to cause extreme heat and cold. And two studies showed that climate change could make unusual weather on the US east coast more likely. So how strong is the link?

Global warning

It plays a part in all the weather on our planet, say some scientists. Extreme events are becoming more frequent and intense; lasting longer; and happening at more unusual times of the year. This storm may have happened anyway — but global warming causes hotter air to build in the atmosphere. That probably altered the jet streams around Stella, causing it to collect more snow.

Be careful, respond others. Climate change is happening but storms like Stella, which travel against their winds in the north-east of the US, can be traced to at least the 18th century. Scientists have to work with records of extreme weather which were very patchy until the last few decades. And their models often return inconsistent results. It would be foolish to jump to simplistic conclusions too quickly.

You Decide

  1. Does climate change worry you?
  2. Is it wrong to draw a link between climate change and individual extreme weather events?

Activities

  1. Work in pairs. You are TV journalists in the north-eastern USA, making a report on Storm Stella’s impact. Write down 10 things (for example, images or interviews) your report will include.
  2. Why do some people disbelieve climate change science? Write a one-page memo explaining three possible reasons, using the third and fourth links under Become An Expert to help. Return to class to discuss.

Some People Say...

“Global warming is the greatest threat facing the human race.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t live in the northeastern USA. Can I just ignore this?
This storm has hit New York City — one of the world’s leading financial centres — and Washington, DC, the capital of the most powerful country in the world. Events there will have an indirect impact on you: they distract politicians from causes you may care about and force businesses to close, harming the global economy.
But it almost never snows where I live.
Events like snow storms, heat waves and floods are becoming more common, so they are more likely to affect people you care about. They could disrupt your travel plans. And climate change will affect the supply of important resources such as food and water. This could increase poverty and encourage people to move around the world, changing societies and economies globally.

Word Watch

Cyclone
Stella is an intensifying mid-latitude cyclone — a huge weather system which forms from an area of low pressure and brings precipitation.
Thundersnow
A thunderstorm in which snow falls, rather than rain.
Forecasters
One weather forecaster said Stella was so strong that he had to add a new colour to his map.
March
Unusually late for a winter storm. Last week temperatures in New York climbed to 20°C.
Records
Dating to 1869.
Frequent
For example, climate scientists in Germany found that summer “blocking patterns” more than doubled between 2004 and 2014. These involve hot or wet weather remaining stuck over a region for prolonged periods, causing heatwaves or floods.
Panel
From the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
18th century
In 1743 Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the United States, wanted to watch a lunar eclipse in Philadelphia, but a storm blocked his view. He then found out the storm had reached his brother in Boston later than him. It had travelled in the opposite direction to the wind. This is the first known record of the “nor’easter”.

Subjects

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