Is Climate Change Causing More Frequent Blizzards?

Travel bans have lifted, snowplows are running, and residents on the East Coast are beginning to dig themselves out from under the worst winter storm in years.

As the sky clears, residents are once again questioning why the number of blizzards is increasing and if it has something to do with climate change.

The answer: yes and no.

The number of blizzards in America has doubled in the last two decades and while climate change has played its part, sunspots have also made winter weather worse, Ball State researcher Jill Coleman told the USA Today.

“Sunspot-minimum periods tend to coincide with more frequent polar outbreaks in the Northern Hemisphere that could increase the likelihood for blizzard occurrence.”

Her research suggests there are more blizzards when there are fewer sunspots and there have been much fewer sunspots in the last decade or so.

“However, sunspot activity is only a small component in explaining the frequency of blizzard occurrence.”

The other component is, of course, human-induced climate change.

Michael Mann, Director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center told ThinkProgress there is peer-reviewed science that suggests climate change is producing more blizzards that are more intense.

“When you mix extra moisture with ‘a cold Arctic outbreak (something we’ll continue to get even as global warming proceeds), you get huge amounts of energy and moisture, and monster snowfalls.”

The National Weather Service defines a blizzard as a snowstorm with sustained gusts of 35 mph or greater with heavy falling snow that reduces visibility to less than a quarter mile for at least three hours.

The massive blizzard that blanketed the East Coast in several feet of snow was the largest ever recorded for three cities: Baltimore received 29.2 inches, Allentown, Pennsylvania, with 31.9 inches, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with 34 inches. New York narrowly missed setting an all time record by one-tenth of an inch, according to the USA Today.

The blizzards are getting worse because there’s so much moisture in the air. As the earth’s temperature increases because of climate change, more and more moisture is captured in the atmosphere as Kevin Trenberth, former head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told ThinkProgress.

“Basic physics tells us that a warmer atmosphere is able to hold more moisture.”

The number of severe winter storms happening outside blizzard season is also increasing, which scientists say is a sure sign the earth is warming. Climate deniers, however, like Sen. James Inhofe, who brought a snowball to the Senate floor, would have you believe otherwise.

They contend that the mere existence of powdery white snow is clear evidence against global warming and climate change.

Mann, however, refutes that assumption with peer-reviewed science, as he explained to ThinkProgress.

While critics like to claim that these massive winter storms are evidence against climate change, they are actually favored by climate change.

The American government commissioned a panel to review the science and, in 2009, concluded the number of winter blizzards would increase because of climate change, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

“Cold-season storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent.”

[Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images]