New York City is covered in snow. It’s a beautiful sight we can appreciate from the comfort of our homes, but, you guessed it: These types of dangerous and powerful storms will likely grow worse due to climate change. They’re also a sore sight for households that have been struggling to pay utility bills during the pandemic or essential workers who are forced into the storm—like the postal workers I’ve seen trudging along outside my window.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re taking a closer look at the latest weather forecast. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. We’re diving into the deadly and devastating nature of snow, which hit the 2 feet mark in parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia by Monday afternoon. Snow is baked into the DNA of the Northeast, but science shows how even the cold can worsen in a warmer world.
Climate Change and Snow
Some people look at cold weather events, scratch their heads, and ask: “What global warming?” These types of events often receive a lot of attention from climate skeptics or deniers. The former president, for example, used to tweet about climate whenever snow would fall. Well, I’m here to inform you that climate change will not erase snow storms out of existence.
Let’s first remember that snow is a form of precipitation. It’s water that has frozen due to cold temperatures. Without low temperatures, it would otherwise fall as rain. Research has already shown that higher global temperatures may intensify the planet’s water cycles as more water evaporates from our oceans, increasing the amount of water vapor in atmospheric rivers. These are literally rivers in the sky. They carry loads of water vapor—up to 15 times the average flow of water we see at the mouth of the Mississippi River. They drop rain or snow that we need, but when the conditions are just right, we get events like this nor’easter.
“Part of this has links with being more severe because of climate change.”
The storm that has descended upon the Northeast didn’t come out of nowhere. In California, we saw heavy rains result in the collapse of the scenic Highway 1. The energy from that weather event helped fuel the system that moved east across the Midwest and is now roaring through the Northeast, explained Brenda Ekwurzel, the director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate and Energy Program. Now, we have a storm that has picked up energy from three sources: the Pacific Ocean out west, the Atlantic Ocean in the east, and even the Arctic up north. The polar vortex sent a burst of cold air into the jet stream that feeds into the weather the Midwest and Northeast see in the U.S. Many climate scientists believe that rising temperatures are causing the polar vortex to grow more unstable.
“The atmosphere is warmer. The ocean temperatures are warm, and these weather patterns can draw a lot more precipitation and energy that’s dumping on land in this winter stormy period,” Ekwurzel says. “Part of this has links with being more severe because of climate change.”
The main concern with all this snow is that, well, it’ll melt. Once it does, it may eventually flood. River levels across the northeastern coast are already experiencing moderate flooding, per the National Weather Service’s river forecasts. All that water needs to go somewhere, and communities nearby or downstream often suffer. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a society built for the level of precipitation the climate crisis is dropping. That spells serious trouble—especially when freezing temperatures are involved.
Inequality and Snow
Unemployment has been at an all-time high during the COVID-19 pandemic. For the poorest among us, it’s likely even worse: more than 20 percent. Now, imagine having to pay for your rent, food, and energy bills without a job. This is the reality many people are facing during the pandemic, including low-income communities who know this story all too well.
Still, not every state banned utility shut-offs. Doing so, however, could result in reduced COVID-19 infections and mortality, according to a working paper a team of researchers from Duke University released last month. Now, imagine how this might impact people during a freezing blizzard who need heat to stay warm inside their homes. This is especially true for people experiencing houselessness who can’t access their usual places of shelter, which may shut down during severe weather and are increasingly inaccessible due to the pandemic’s social distancing guidelines.
As Gregory Jenkins, a professor of meteorology and atmospheric science at Penn State, told me, essential workers are especially vulnerable during these events. They are the ones forced into the cars to commute into work or walk down icy sidewalks. Essential workers in the food, industrial, and residential industries are often people of color. In healthcare and government- and community-based services, they are often women. These are the people braving the frigid conditions to serve us and keep business running smoothly.
Beyond the snow and the cold, there’s our crumbling infrastructure, says Ekwurzel. All this rain and water weakens public transit systems, homes, and roads that weren’t built with them in mind. In 2019, spring snowmelt brought flooding to tribal communities such as the Ponca Tribe, the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. It was devastating, to say the least.
Though infrastructure like dams are supposed to hold all this water back, we’ve seen them fail with the intense precipitation that feels all too common these days. Ekwurzel is especially worried about the communities that rely on outdated dams to keep floodwaters at bay. As the Associated Press investigated in 2019, thousands of people are at risk should our aging dams fail.
History has shown us who is least likely to receive help when disaster comes knocking. Hint: people who look a lot like me.