Global Warming = More Snow? 

This winter, New Englanders watched record-breaking amounts of snow layer up outside their doors. Snow is not unusual in the Northeast region of the United States, but the transportation-halting, business-closing, structure-damaging amounts witnessed this past winter had more people than ever questioning, “what is going on?”

When we talk about global warming, nor’easters are not typically part of our mental imagery – but they should be! Although global warming is not entirely responsible for these dramatic weather events, increased global temperatures are a major part of the problem. And I do mean “warming”; the dramatic New England winter we observed this year is connected to an oceanic warming trend.

The oceans are getting warmer at an extraordinarily fast rate [1]. So fast that climate scientists have a hard time publishing reports as quickly as changes are occurring [2]. While it may not seem logical that warmer water causes more snow, this temperature increase is a major contributor to extreme weather.

Water absorbs and retains heat very well. When cool air travels over the surface of warm upper layers, the water heats the air and then evaporates. The newly warmed humid air rises and cools as it travels, forming clouds and eventually precipitation (in freezing New England this comes in the form of snow). This phenomenon, known as the “lake (or bay) effect” is part of what caused coastal New England to be slammed with blizzard conditions this winter.

It is not easy to fully understand the effects and extent of increasing ocean temperatures, even for oceanographers. Under static conditions, understanding vast ocean systems is difficult; surface observations and samples from depth each only give a small glimpse as to what is going on. However, current variable conditions mean that researchers must constantly gather new data and refresh records to keep up with the effects of ocean temperature rise. Extreme weather is only one consequence of these changes; the broader results of increasing ocean temperatures are felt globally and by all species. For example, a recent study suggests that increasing ocean temperatures are changing the behavior of migratory baleen whales as they travel to seasonal feeding grounds [3], while another observed decreasing fecundity of loggerhead sea turtles [4].

The trend and results of global ocean warming are widespread, but not entirely understood. However, researchers do know that as ocean temperatures increase, the myriad of associated problems will intensify; including the cycle of cold air collecting moisture from the water and dumping on land. If current patterns persist, ocean warming will continue to wreak havoc at sea – and on land.

[1]      S. Levitus, J.I. Antonov, T.P. Boyer, O.K. Baranova, H.E. Garcia, R.A. Locarnini, et al., World ocean heat content and thermosteric sea level change (0-2000 m), 1955-2010, Geophys. Res. Lett. 39 (2012) n/a–n/a. doi:10.1029/2012GL051106.

[2]      C. Mooney, What the massive snowfall in Boston tells us about global warming, Washington Post. (2015). http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/02/10/what-the-massive-snowfall-in-boston-tells-us-about-global-warming/ (accessed April 23, 2015).

[3]      C. Ramp, J. Delarue, P.J. Palsbøll, R. Sears, P.S. Hammond, Adapting to a Warmer Ocean-Seasonal Shift of Baleen Whale Movements over Three Decades., PLoS One. 10 (2015) e0121374. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0121374.

[4]      M.M. Lamont, I. Fujisaki, Effects of Ocean Temperature on Nesting Phenology and Fecundity of the Loggerhead Sea Turtle ( Caretta caretta ), J. Herpetol. 48 (2014) 98–102. doi:10.1670/12-217.

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