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Extreme Winters: Human-Caused and Increasingly Common

Sep 02, 2016 05:01 AM EDT
NYC Blizzard January 2011 Lower East Side
The Lower East Side of New York after the January 25th blizzard in the Northeast
(Photo : David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)

Temperature records being broken throughout the U.S., especially in winter, have become a commonplace event.

Researchers published results on Thursday from their study of U.S. extreme winter weather patterns in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. They linked warm winters in the West and cold winters in the East to manmade climate change, specifically green house gases.

"There's this idea that the past few winters were more extreme than usual, particularly since the conditions in the East and West were so different," senior author, associate professor of Earth system science at the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment Noah Diffenbaugh said in a press release.

"Looking back at temperature data from the past 35 years, we've found that in fact 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 did have the biggest difference in winter temperature between the East and West."

A team from Stanford worked with researchers from Columbia University, Northwestern University and University of California, Los Angeles. They found that extreme winters began happening more frequently, and with increased severity, in the timespan reaching back to 1980.

An atmospheric configuration made up of high atmospheric pressure in the West and low atmospheric pressure in the East is causing the phenomenon of extreme, but opposite, winters on the coasts. Circulation patterns thought to be related to warming trends are bringing cold air from the poles to the East Coast.

Extremely cold winters will probably stop being common as warming continues, but it's not expected that cold events will cease completely. Good city wide planning is imperative in preventing cold events from becoming disasters.

The West Coast will need to contend with heat related droughts. Understanding of regional variations in climate change will help policy makers and citizens prepare for future conditions.

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