The record snowfall that buried the U.S. East Coast and froze Florida exploded out of two drastically unusual weather factors that just prove nature likes surprises, a leading climate scientist says.
Pure science partly spurred Richard Seager, senior research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, but also scientific annoyance at people who used the bitter winter as a sign an indication there was no global warming or that sloppy meteorologists overlooked it.
“The obvious thing is that there was an El Nino,” he said, referring to the abnormal warming of the ocean’s surface in the eastern tropical Pacific.
That phenomenon smacked into the worst North Atlantic Oscillation since 1822, which brought bitter cold and more precipitation to the Atlantic rim. From Boston to Washington, D.C., the precipitation came as snow, rather than rain – more than 180 centimetres of it.
On the other side of the Atlantic, northwestern Europe got socked with heavy snow. For Central Canada, it meant less snow than usual.
In Vancouver, the Winter Olympics had to truck in snow for some events.
“El Ninos are predictable. North American Oscillation isn’t really. They can just happen and take us by surprise.”
Scientifically, Seager calls it “random variability.” Practically, he points out: “You can’t argue one way or the other that it’s a symptom of climate change or no climate change.”
The study examined 60 years of snowfall measurements for its perspective. Researchers tracking the pesky North Atlantic Oscillation knew it has been sliding down since 1990 and “took a real dive” last winter, he said.
Does that mean the winter of 2011 will be just as bad, or worse?
“It might be snowy next winter, but not as snowy,” said Seager. “That sounds like a safe bet.”
The full study is published in Geophysical Research Letters.
- Lesley Ciarula Taylor, Staff Reporter