Climate contradiction: less snow, more blizzards

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WASHINGTON -- With scant snowfall and barren ski slopes in parts of the Midwest and Northeast the past couple of years, some scientists have pointed to global warming as the culprit. Then when a whopper of a blizzard smacked the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow in some places earlier this month, some of the same people again blamed global warming. How can that be?

It has been a joke among skeptics, pointing to what seems to be a brazen contradiction. But the answer lies in atmospheric physics.

A warmer atmosphere can hold -- and dump -- more moisture, snow experts say. And two soon-to-be-published studies demonstrate how there can be more giant blizzards yet less snow overall each year. Projections are that that's likely to continue with man-made global warming.

Consider:

• The United States has been walloped by twice as many of the most extreme snowstorms in the past 50 years as in the previous 60 years, according to an upcoming study on extreme weather by leading federal and university climate scientists. This also fits with a dramatic upward trend in extreme winter precipitation -- both rain and snow -- in the Northeastern United States, as charted by the National Climatic Data Center.

• Yet Rutgers University's Global Snow Lab says spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has shrunk, on average, by 1 million square miles in the past 45 years.

• And an upcoming study in the Journal of Climate says computer models predict annual global snowfall to shrink by more than a foot in the next 50 years. The study's author said most people live in parts of the United States likely to see annual snowfall drop between 30 percent and 70 percent by the end of the century.

"Shorter snow season, less snow overall, but the occasional knockout punch," Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer said. "That's the new world we live in."

Ten climate scientists say the idea of less snow and more blizzards makes sense: A warmer world is likely to decrease the overall amount of snow falling each year and shrink snow season. But when it is cold enough for a snowstorm to hit, the slightly warmer air is often carrying more moisture, producing potentially historic blizzards.

"Strong snowstorms thrive on the ragged edge of temperature -- warm enough for the air to hold lots of moisture, meaning lots of precipitation, but just cold enough for it to fall as snow," said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. "Increasingly, it seems that we're on that ragged edge."

Just look at the past few years in the Northeast. Or take Chicago, which until late January had 335 days without more than an inch of snow. Both have been hit with historic storms in recent years.

Scientists won't blame a specific event, or even a specific seasonal change, on global warming without doing intricate and time-consuming studies. And they say they are just now getting a better picture of the complex intersection of man-made climate change and extreme snowfall.

But when Mr. Serreze, Mr. Oppenheimer and others look at the last few years of less snow overall, punctuated by big storms, they say this is what they are expecting in the future. "It fits the pattern that we expect to unfold," Mr. Oppenheimer said.

The world is warming, so precipitation that would normally fall as snow will likely fall in the future as rain once it gets above the freezing point, Princeton researcher Sarah Kapnick said. Her study used new computer models to simulate the climate in 60 to 100 years, as carbon dioxide levels soar.

She found large reductions in snowfall throughout much of the world, especially parts of Canada and the Andes Mountains. In the United States, her models predict about a 50 percent or more drop in annual snowfall amounts along a giant swath of the nation, from Maine to Texas and the Pacific Northwest and California's Sierra Nevada mountains.

This is especially important out West, where large snowcaps are natural reservoirs for a region's water supply, Ms. Kapnick said. And already in the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest and in much of California, the amount of snow still around on April 1 has been declining, so it's down about 20 percent compared with 80 years ago, said Philip Mote, who heads a climate change institute at Oregon State University.

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