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Climate Change And The Blizzard: Nor'easters More Fierce With Global Warming, Scientists Say

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Climate change may or may not have helped generate the nor'easter lashing the East Coast this weekend. Such storms happen with some regularity, after all. But the amount of snow the storm called "Nemo" ultimately dumps, and the extent of flood damage it leaves in its wake, may well have ties to global warming, climate scientists suggested.

Michael Mann, a climatologist who directs the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, compared a major storm like Nemo -- or Hurricane Irene or Superstorm Sandy, for that matter -- to a basketball slam-dunk with a lower net.

"If you take the basketball court and raise it a foot, you're going to see more slam-dunks," Mann said. "Not every dunk is due to raising the floor, but you'll start seeing them happen more often then they ought to."

The two key ingredients in a big snow: just cold-enough temperatures and a lot of moisture. Combine the chilled air converging on the East with the massive moisture coming from the Gulf of Mexico region and you've got the "perfect setup for a big storm," Kevin Trenberth, of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, told The Huffington Post in an email.

As Trenberth explained, the ideal temperature for a blizzard is just below freezing -- just cold enough to crystalize water into snow. Below that, the atmosphere's ability to hold moisture to create those snowflakes drops by 4 percent for every one degree Fahrenheit fall in temperature.

"In the past, temperatures at this time of year would have been a lot below freezing," Trenberth said. In other words, it's been too cold to snow heavily. But that may become less of an obstacle for snow in the Northeast.

In addition to warming the air, climate change is adding moisture to it.

Sea surface temperatures are about two degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were before 1980, raising the potential for a big snow by about 10 percent, according to Trenberth. And any individual storm, including this nor'easter, will pick up more moisture as it spins across a warmer ocean. What's more, as Mann explained, a warm ocean clashes with cold air masses from the Arctic. A bigger contrast in temperatures may mean a bigger storm, he said.

Michael Oppenheimer, a climate change expert at Princeton University, said global warming is increasing extreme storms. "Storms like this tend to be heavier than they used to be," he told HuffPost. "That's a fact."

As HuffPost reported on Friday, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records show that the Northeast saw a 74 percent increase in precipitation during the heaviest rain and snow events from 1958 to 2011.


Still, connecting any specific weather event to global warming remains inexact. A new area of study called "event attribution science" is mining data in an attempt to make more definitive links, or at least better gauge the odds of an extreme event in the context of climate change that results partly from human activities, including burning fossil fuels. But the field is young.

And, truth is, nor'easters happen.

In fact, Jeff Masters, a climatologist and founder of Weather Underground, noted that the number of intense nor'easters hasn't increased over the last three or four decades. A warmer climate, he explained, can decrease the length of the snowy season, and therefore the time window for nor'easters.

Further, nor'easters are defined not only by heavy snowfall, but by high winds. There's less evidence for links between winter winds and climate change. Warm weather storms, such as Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, are another story. "Since hurricanes are heat engines, they drive power from ocean waters," said Masters.

Another climate-linked ingredient could propel this weekend's storm into the history books: rising sea levels.

"A three-foot storm surge, on top of a higher sea level, will do more damage," Masters said, noting that sea levels in Boston, expected to bear the brunt of the nor'easter with an historic storm surge, have risen a foot in the last 90 years.

Penn State's Mann also likes to use baseball metaphors when describing climate's influence on major storms -- "home runs," he calls them. "What we're seeing now with climate change is weather on steroids."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Kevin Trenberth's job title. The error has been corrected.

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At least 10 people have been reported dead after this weekend's story, NBC News reported. A Boston man was found dead in his car from carbon monoxide poisoning.

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@ wunderground : Number of customers without power is down to 480,000 #blizzard

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@ alroker : LIE will be closed in both directions from exit 57-73 on Sunday Feb. 10 from 7 a.m. to approximately 5 p.m. for snow removal from #Nemo

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@ 7News : Some Plum Island homes may be a lost cause after #Blizzard2013: #7News #Blizzard2013

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@ greenpeaceusa : What do #climate scientists have to say about #blizzard #nemo? Find out:

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@ nationalgridus : Be aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide. Symptoms include: headaches, weakness and dizziness. If you suspect CO, go outside & call 911.

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@ 7News : Mass. National Guard, EMT deliver baby in storm and her nickname is "Little Nemo" #7News #Blizzard2013

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As people across the Northeast dug out from Winter Storm "Nemo" over the weekend, their pets reacted to the snow with emotions ranging from bewilderment to glee.

Click here to view photos of animals reacting to the snowstorm.

snowstorm animals

Credit: HuffPost User: Nerissa

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@ usNWSgov : Hamden, CT measured 40" of snow from the great #blizzard of 2013.

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sledding in astoria

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From Boston's WCVB:

Boston fire officials said a second person died Saturday after apparently being poisoned by carbon monoxide while sitting in his vehicle.

Firefighters were called to a Woolson Street home in Mattapan after reports that a man had been sitting in a running vehicle since 11 a.m. After getting no response, crews broke the window and discovered that the man was dead.

Fire officials said he died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Earlier in the day, a 12-year-old boy died after he and his father were poisoned by carbon monoxide while shoveling out their vehicle in Dorchester.

Click here to read more.

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@ NSTAR_News : Sorry, we won't have estimates tonight but we'll post them ASAP. In the meantime, our Outage Map has real-time updates.

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@ wunderground : RT @NBCConnecticut: Gov. Malloy has asked President Obama for an Emergency Declaration #blizzard

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@ NotifyNYC : Sun 2/10, Amtrak to restore limited service btw NYC & Boston. Empire Service to Albany will operate a normal Sun schedule.

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@ GovMalloyOffice : Bottom line: Unless you need to travel somewhere, stay put tonight. Ppl who get stuck on the roads block the plows from doing their jobs

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@ nationalgridus : #RI was heavily damaged by #Nemo, & restoration is moving as fast as possible. As of 5PM, we've restored nearly 25% of customers w/outages.

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@ wunderground : Did you know another blizzard is going the U.S. this weekend? This one is in the Plains.

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@ breakingstorm : Update: 9 deaths from Northeast blizzard confirmed, including 5 in Connecticut - @NBCNews

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CNN reports:

According to utility figures compiled by CNN, 592,688 customers are without power in nine U.S. states. Massachusetts has the highest number, at 376,682.

Read more here.

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@ GovMalloyOffice : At this point, we have reports of at least 5 fatalities in the state. #CTStorm

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From Middlefield Patch:

Firefighters were involved in a dramatic rescue at a local farm on Saturday after heavy snow caused a dairy barn to partially collapse, trapping two dozen milking cows underneath it.

At least two of the animals had to be euthanized, officials confirmed this afternoon.

Firefighters from the Middlefield Volunteer Fire Company responded to Triangle A Ranch at 334 Jackson Hill Road shortly before 11 a.m., just hours after the storm finished dumping about three feet of snow on the town.

Using shovels, heavy machinery and even their hands, firefighters cleared snow from the twisted metal as they attempted to reach the trapped animals.

Five cows were safely rescued, according to officials, but two other animals pulled from the debris were euthanized due to the extent of their injuries. Two other cows were in critical condition and were expected to be euthanized as well, officials said.

Full story on Middlefield Patch.

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The Associated Press reports:


Even the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, Mass., had to shut down and turn to backup generators.


With leaves gone, damage to power lines from falling branches was less than it might have been.

Read eight more facts about the storm here.

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@ breakingweather : Reports coming in that all Boston transit will be closed until Monday.

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@ GovMalloyOffice : Gov. Malloy will hold a news briefing w/ updates on storm recovery tonight at 6PM. Watch it live online: #CTStorm

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HuffPost's Katherine Bindley reports:

Ahead of the snowfall that inundated the East Coast Friday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the city’s Department of Homeless Services to double efforts to connect the city’s unsheltered with a warm place to sleep. But for those needing help with other basics, like food, the snow seems to have complicated the quest for help.

Read the whole story here.

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From Middlefield Patch:

Middlefield firefighters, Durham firefighters and members of Durham's Animal Rescue Team are on the scene of a barn collapse and animal rescue on Jackson Hill Road.

At least two cows have been rescued from the collapsed barn and firefighters are attempting to rescue at least three more. The extent of any injuries to the animals is unclear at this point.

Firefighters believe as many as 12 cows remain trapped under the barn, which collapsed Saturday morning under the pressure of heavy snow. Some of the animals were said to be moving around under the collapsed structure.

Read the full story on Middlefield Patch:

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Vine, Twitter's new video-sharing app, was launched just in time for users to capture Saturday's record-breaking blizzard.

Check out some of the most interesting 'Nemo' Vines here.

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Around the Web

Historic, Crippling Blizzard May Strike New England | Climate Central

Snowstorm: East Coast Blizzard Tied to Climate Change - TIME

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