US ‘Snowzilla’ storm may be ‘the new normal'

Snow way: New York saw 26.8 inches of snow, its second worst storm since records began. © PA

The huge snowfall in Washington and New York this weekend has created death and destruction but also frolics, community spirit, beauty and awe. What if humans are something to do with it?

By Saturday evening in New York, 26.8 inches of snow had fallen in Central Park, just 0.1 inches short of a record. In Glengary, West Virginia, there was a fall of 42 inches. In Washington, DC, 22.4 inches had fallen at the National Zoo, where earlier that day a video of Tian Tian the Giant Panda joyfully rolling around in the snow had quickly gone viral.

There was also online fame for a police car blasting the Frozen soundtrack as it cruised DC’s icy streets, and for the family in Maryland who rescued a freezing piglet called ‘Wee Wee’. In New York, Brooklyn locals gathered for a dance party in the streets. Others fetched their snowboards.

But despite the excitement, many found the weekend’s record-breaking snowstorm less welcome. ‘Snowzilla’ stretched nearly 1,000 miles, bringing two of the world’s major cities to a halt. New York’s mayor threatened to arrest anyone driving unnecessarily; ten states declared a state of emergency; around 200,000 people lost power; at least 19 people were killed.

So is there a link to man made climate change -- which would imply we can only expect more of the same in the future? The consensus this morning is that there is some link, though not a direct one. And that extreme weather will indeed become more common.

Snowstorms such as this draw their energy from the contrast between warm ocean waters and a cold Arctic air. They are especially bad when the world experiences a particularly powerful El Niño; this is the name for a pattern of unusually warm water stretching across the surface of the eastern equatorial Pacific that occurs every 3–7 years.

According to Dr Scott Power from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the lead author of a report published in 2013, global warming interferes with El Niño temperature patterns. ‘This interference causes an intensification of El Niño’ he says. Climate change may not have caused it but it is affecting the ‘background conditions’.

So if New Yorkers and others have got to live with more blizzards is it 100% bad news?

Silver lining...

Yes, many insist. Snow has almost always been bad news; for many in the middle ages it was ‘a matter of life and death’ and despite all our modern engineering it can bring two of the world’s most powerful cities to their knees in just a few hours.

But perhaps, say others, we need to look beyond the risks and costs. If climate change is to be taken seriously it might help if city dwellers, normally so insulated from nature, experienced some extreme weather first hand. Feeling the power of nature helps keep us sane and healthy. (Psychologists call it ‘ecotherapy’). And there is something about snow. Like Tian Tian many people cannot help loving it.

You Decide

  1. If you woke up to 24 inches of snow tomorrow, would you be happy or miserable?
  2. To live in extreme heat or extreme cold -- which would you prefer?

Activities

  1. Write a paragraph describing the last time you felt inspired by nature. Where were you? How did it make you feel?
  2. Extreme blizzards are one of the more surprising effects of global warming. Research five other ways the weather might change, and the impact it could have. Rank them in order of importance.

Some People Say...

“Great God! this is an awful place”

Captain Scott - referring to the South Pole.

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t live on the East coast of America.
It’s still amazing to see two of the world’s most famous cities in a completely different light. And beyond that, it is interesting to consider our reactions to nature — how do we feel when faced with something so overwhelming? How should we react when our routines are brought to a standstill?
Will it happen in the UK?
The same storm which caused Snowzilla is now heading towards Britain, and is expected to arrive on Tuesday. However, just as north-east America is particularly susceptible to snowstorms, Britain has its own weak spots which climate change could make worse: notably flooding. The Met Office has issued a ‘severe weather warning’ for Wales, north-west England and western Scotland, so be wary of strong winds and rain.

Word Watch

Tian Tian
Born in 1997, the Giant Panda’s name means ‘more and more’. He lives at the Smithsonian National Zoo with the female Mei Xiang, their daughter Bao Bao and cub Bei Bei, who was born in August 2015.
Maryland
An East coast state with a population of around six million.
Record-breaking
Baltimore received a record-breaking 29.2 inches of snow. Although the measurement in Central Park just fell short of a record, the city did break its record for the most snowfall in a single day.
19 people
While some of these deaths were caused by road incidents, several people died of heart attacks while shovelling snow. Around 100 people die from this activity in the USA every winter. This is because the strenuous work increases heart rate and blood pressure, while the cold air constricts arteries.
El Niño
Although El Niño occurs naturally every few years, we are experiencing a particularly strong episode, with drought in Indonesia, heatwaves in India and flooding in South America.
Ecotherapy
Working or exercising outdoors can help improve mental and physical health.

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