The winter season may become shorter, but storms and floods will hit the East Coast harder than ever due to climate change, Edmund K.M. Chang, a professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) at Stony Brook University, hypothesized in a study on winter storms.
Last November, Long Islanders saw an unexpected snowstorm that left up to six inches in some places. While it was no feat compared to previous blizzards, which sometimes totaled over two feet, this storm caught Long Island officials off-guard due to initial forecasts calling for only a dusting of snow. Residents were left stranded in bumper-to-bumper traffic, while wind gusts mixed with heavy snow downed trees and power lines in Nassau and western Suffolk counties.
Chang’s study on extreme winter weather comes a year after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its special report titled “Global Warming of 1.5°C,” describing the impacts of global warming of 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels. The report marks a global increase in the frequency and intensity of climate and weather extremes. Eastern North America and eastern Asia, as well as high-latitude and mountainous regions, saw the highest increase in precipitation levels, according to the report.
Long Island, in particular, might face global warming’s wrath in the form of intense storms called “nor’easters,” according to Chang’s study.
The difference in potential energy generated between the warm tropics and the cold polar region results in these aggressive storms. Typically, the warming polar region would be expected to decrease this potential energy and cause less intense “nor’easters.” But a secondary factor — increased moisture in the atmosphere from receding ice in the Arctic — is contributing latent heat, a secondary source of energy for winter storms.
“So there’s uncertainty,” Chang said. “Would the reduction be more than the increase or would the increase be stronger than the reduction?”
Chang plans to tackle this uncertainty using the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase Six (CMIP6). CMIP6 is an international climate data effort in its sixth phase that gathers weather information from countries around the world. The data helps researchers like Chang analyze future climate projections and weather patterns.
In Sept. 2019, Chang received a $200,000 grant annually for two years from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Modeling, Analysis, Predictions and Projections Program (NOAA/MAPP) to help fund the research. Part of the grant will fund a 200-terabyte computer to process the data from the CMIP6.
“The study has a logical sound and set-up,” Sarah Kapnick, deputy division leader and research physical scientist at NOAA, said. She explained that Chang’s team uses a high-resolution global climate model; previous studies used a coarser version. Kapnick has no participation in this specific research; however, her research focuses on extreme storms and precipitation.
Chang’s work is part of a national project that focuses on the impact of global warming on weather patterns. Older models looked at Long Island as one, large affected area. This new approach looks at the island in approximately 16-mile increments, making the models more accurate for specific places.
“We have a global warming signal,” Rui Zhang, a graduate assistant working on Chang’s project, said. The “signal” she’s referring to means accrued evidence that the Earth is warming.
“We want to know how to track storm activity to relate it to extreme weather events and extreme temperature,” she said.
According to Chang, the U.S. economy, transportation, power and emergency management sectors bear the most impact if his hypothesis of storms growing less in number, but becoming far more intense, holds true.
“If you naively think that it’s going to warm and that there will be less snow you won’t be prepared for it,” Chang said. “If you can have more accurate information such as there will be less snowstorms but still expect as heavy snow, then they would plan differently.”
The Suffolk County Office of Emergency Management looks at historical and recent data to prepare for snowstorms. Joel Vetter, chief of rescue and emergency services, said that if the hypothesis is true, “we, as a state” would arrange for longer crisis periods.
“We’d prepare for a longer duration snowstorm and posture like we would for a hurricane,” Vetter said.
Vetter also pointed out that last winter the county invested $5 million in snow removal preparation, including 12 new 10-wheel dump trucks and payloaders to keep snow off the streets. The Long Island Rail Road installed 60 switch covers to protect track switches from ice, rain and snow and placed new heaters to protect 13,000 feet of electrified rail from freezing over.
NOAA, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce, finances projects like Chang’s to support “U.S. national security, economic vitality and public welfare,” according to its website.
NOAA’s grant selection process involves a 3-step reviewal process where respected scientists judge and rank all proposals. Then, the proposals are funded in order of the ranking until that year’s budget runs dry.
“It is a highly competitive process, usually with an acceptance rate around one-third,” Dan Barrie, program manager at NOAA, said.
Chang’s previous research focused on the factors that drive extreme storms and improvements to forecasting models from “two days out to two centuries” out, meaning better weekly predictions as well as discovering more accurate trends in weather patterns. His goal for his research is to improve both short-term prediction and long-term projection.
“We are focused on what bad weather brings because that impacts our economy and actually sometimes leads to fatalities,” Chang said.
“There’s been less focus on winter storms and how they’ll change,” Kapnick said. “This is a really important body of research.”