By: Julia Rowland
The holiday season looked a bit different for the residents of Buffalo, New York this year. Buffalo often receives snowfall around the holidays and through the winter months. However, the life-threatening snowstorm Buffalo endured from Friday Dec. 23 through the following week was different. The sheer magnitude of it was one few residents have ever experienced.
The storm developed quickly and persisted for multiple days, resulting in a lengthy travel ban established by Mayor Byron Brown. Over 40 people have died as a result of the blizzard. Although large amounts of snowfall is not uncommon in the area, the severity of the storm when compared to past ones have led many to speculate a connection between the intensity of the blizzard and effects of climate change.
Climate change is defined as “long-term shifts in temperature and weather patterns” largely due to human activities like burning fossil fuels and creating greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations. Due to the phrase “global warming”, it is a common misconception that the effects of climate change only appear in summer and in heat-related weather events. Rather, climate change creates more weather extremes, including severe blizzards.
Dr. Karie Altman, a biologist and professor of science at St. Bonaventure University, shared her thoughts on the storm and its potential connection to climate change. She explained that “one consensus among climate researchers is that as the climate changes, we will likely experience more frequent and more severe extreme weather events, including rain and snow storms.” The Buffalo snowstorm is a prime example of this.
Dr. Altman goes on further to explain that as the climate changes, “we expect average temperatures to increase and the warmer the atmosphere is, the more water vapor it can hold.” Due to this, “that water vapor will eventually condense and return to Earth as precipitation.” In colder environments, this precipitation falls as snow, in larger quantities as seen in Buffalo.
Dr. Stephen Vermette, a professor at Buffalo State who specializes in meteorology and climatology, offered his thoughts on the potential connection between the Buffalo snowstorm and the effects of climate change. “No one will ever be able to say that this storm was due to climate change” but “there could be a residual effect” said Dr. Vermette.
Dr. Vermette explains that “since 1965, the amount of [yearly] snowfall has not changed” and “the number of snow days have decreased since 1965 [by about 30%]” as well. While this might seem like an indicator that climate change has had little effect, it is clear that the same amount of snow during less days means “that when it does snow, we may be getting more intense snow events,” similar to the severe snowstorm in Buffalo over winter break.
When asked about the future of weather events in Buffalo and the potential for a subsequent storm, Dr. Vermette said “they will continue into our immediate future” but “a continually warming atmosphere may get to the point that it will be too warm for snow” in the area.
Dr. Altman agreed with Dr. Vermette’s sentiments. “Given the reported trends and predictions…I think it’s reasonable to predict that high-intensity storms will happen again in Buffalo in the future.”
Dr. Vermette provided a call to action to the public. “The best mitigation approach is to reduce our carbon footprint,” he said. It is “still not too late” to curb the effects of climate change and take steps towards a greener future. However, as of now this is our reality. “We also need to better adapt to these changes” in weather and have systems to deal with them safely and effectively.
Reducing our carbon footprint is a key step in slowing climate change. Dr. Altman believes the most crucial response requires governmental action. “We’ll need policy makers to develop legislation to help slow the rate of climate change.” With policies in place, we can hold corporations accountable for the emissions they produce, to better serve our atmosphere and prevent climate change.
Until then, the city of Buffalo and the state of New York need to create better systems to account for the increase in magnitude of storms and make a better effort to prepare “to ensure community members have food and heat” and prevent the loss of innocent lives.
Though there have not been any direct connections made between the snowstorm and climate change by scientists yet, Dr. Altman and Dr. Vermette clearly believe there is a connection and climate change creates a risk for future weather events to be as severe.
- Interview with Dr. Karie Altman
- Interview with Dr. Stephen Vermette