BUFFALO, N.Y. (WROC) — From December 23 to 27, Buffalo and the surrounding areas faced one of the most intense and deadly storms since the “Blizzard of ’77”. In some ways though, the “Blizzard of ’77” pales in comparison.
Buffalo experienced over 35 hours of continuous blizzard conditions, defined as a quarter-mile visibility or less and frequent gusts over 35 mph. Through most of that time they exceeded that criteria with visibilities near zero and wind gusts exceeding 70+ mph at times. This storm was an outlier, an extreme, and something that wouldn’t happen in a normal scenario based on what we’ve observed in the past.
In many aspects the “Blizzard of ’22” was, for lack of a better phrase, the perfect combination of hundreds of thousands of different moving pieces. One of those pieces being Lake Erie temperatures being 2-3° higher than what is expected for this time of year, or as a whole being warmer around this time of year than it used to be in decades past potentially due to the planet warming.
A key factor that lies outside of any known or theorized influence of the planet warming is the wind direction, which is a crucial component to any lake effect snow event. This played a major role in the placing the highest snowfall totals over the Buffalo metro area. The impacts from the event were, in part, magnified by the dense population in the hardest hit areas, as well as the high amount of infrastructure in the area.
Yet the question remains, despite already knowing there were other factors that played into the storm’s impacts, could climate change still have played a role even if it was only a small part and not the “end all, be all” cause of the storm’s strength?
The answer is far more complicated than just a simple yes or no. There are a lot of indications that climate change can, and in some cases might have already in a broad sense influenced changes in weather patterns. But there is still a lot of work to be done to clarify how and why that is. The study of this phenomena called attribution science is still in its infancy but is making great strides already.
So far at least, we can say that the planet is warming according to some of the top scientists in the world, and it’s happening in ways that we haven’t seen before. This time it’s not just a natural cycle, but one that bears the influence of human beings and our actions. This has been studied and concluded upon time and time again with many studies aimed at debunking this theory being proven wrong when put under scrutiny.
There are arguments being made in the scientific community that extreme events like the “Blizzard of ‘22” can be made more frequent by climate change, which so far is one of the leading ideas amongst climate researchers regarding the long term impacts of a warming planet. As the planet continues to trend warmer year after year we’re simply left with a higher and higher energy surplus, because more heat means more energy. Some of this is absorbed by the earth itself, or the oceans, but more than enough of it stays in the atmosphere. More specifically in the troposphere, the layer of the atmosphere where almost all of Earth’s weather occurs.
The atmosphere, which is constantly just trying to create a state of balance, has to find an equilibrium. It does this by creating weather systems that contain more energy, which can mean stronger storms. When the atmosphere is warmer it can hold more water vapor, and more water vapor means the potential for higher totals of rain, snow, etc with each event.
For our area this surplus of energy can also mean the Great Lakes get warmer, and they stay ice-free longer than they used to. This also means there is more open water available to feed a lake effect snow band like the one we just saw. However, just because the lake is warmer doesn’t mean you’re going to see 50+ inches of snow and 70 mph wind gusts happen every day, or every time there’s snow in the forecast.
To bring this all to a point, the world has more carbon dioxide as well as other greenhouse gases in the air than it did 10 years ago, or even 100 years ago and so on. As the atmosphere changes as a result of this, it will create a ripple effect which can lead to different weather patterns. These patterns are ones that could bring extremes in many different ways such as extreme heat and cold, or drought and flooding just to name a few examples. But there will always be other factors to these extreme events that are outside of the influence of a warming planet, making it difficult to directly attribute these to that ripple effect and its consequences. Extreme weather is always going to happen. Global warming can magnify scope, severity and coverage. How those two statements co-exist in relation to an individual event can be blurry, at best.
Editors Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly referenced the “Blizzard of ’77” as the “Blizzard of ’77”, this has since been corrected.