ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — The past five winter seasons in Rochester have all gotten less snow than average. Before that, four of the previous five of those winters were above average. This swing could be related to climate change, according to Dr. Jason Furtado, a meteorology professor at the University of Oklahoma.
“Technically, it has its fingerprints in everything,” said Furtado, who notes that winters are now warmer, turning some snowfall events into rain events. Even so, that does not apply to all storms. “In the wintertime, if we can get just the right cold conditions, and the temperature is actually still warmer than it is, we can actually get heavier snowfalls to happen from those events .”
Snowstorms require two main ingredients: moisture and cold air. As the atmosphere warms from climate change, it can hold more moisture. In regards to cold air, it’s getting less cold for us, and our friends to the north, in the Arctic, where we get a lot of our cold blasts in winter.
“The Arctic region by far is the most rapidly warming place on the entire planet. In fact, it’s warming at rates two to three times anywhere else on the planet,” said Furtado. A warmer Arctic could help break down the tight temperature difference from the poles to the tropics, but this is where things get a little complicated. That breakdown could impact the jet stream, weakening the flow of air overhead, and changing our weather. “There’s a little bit of still debate about that in terms of how much of that effect is being manifested in itself within the jet stream.”
The impact of climate change and global warming on the jet stream is there, but quantifying that impact is difficult. One area of focus is the Arctic and how the cold air is warming, according to Dr. Jennifer Francis, a scientist who researches climate and its interaction with our weather.
“We think that because the warming in the Arctic is so rapid and so much bigger than elsewhere, it’s having an impact on the jet stream such that those waves are tending to be in a large configuration more often.” Larger waves lead to blocking patterns that translate to extreme weather. This could be a long drought, flooding, winter storms, and other extreme weather. “To someone on the surface, it seems like weather systems are hanging around longer and are more persistent.”
This might be a clue as to why our past few winter seasons have been so fickle. The recent pattern has not favored snow, but climate change can quickly swing our weather in the other direction. “If you’ve got a very persistent pattern that lasts a long time and then it abruptly shifts to a different one, you might call that weather whiplash,” said Francis. This happened in spring 2023 as a long warm stretch was followed by a freeze that destroyed crops across the Finger Lakes, causing millions of dollars in damage to vineyards. This is becoming more of a reality as climate change worsens, caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, land management, and agriculture.