Glenn’s Blog: Blizzard of 2016: The Ocean’s Revenge


How Much Fell?

It is officially the biggest snowstorm in the recorded history of:

Allentown 31.9 inches
Harrisburg 30.2 inches
Baltimore 29.2 inches
JFK (New York) 30.5”

It was close to the biggest in:

Philadelphia 22.4 inches (4th all-time)
NYC 26.8 inches (2nd -0.1inches from #1)
Wash, DC 17.8 inches (4th –but disputed-probably higher)

Why Did So Much Fall? Blame The Ocean(S)

Part 1-El Nino

Yes, we’ve had big snowstorms before. Aside from Allentown and the other cities on the #1 list, some were even bigger than this one. FOUR out of the Top 5 snowfalls in Philadelphia occurred in Moderate to Strong El Nino years.

30.7 inches Jan. 1996 Weak La Nina

28.5 inches Feb. 2010 Moderate El Nino

23.2 inches Dec. 2009 Moderate El Nino

22.4 inches Jan. 2016 Record Strong El Nino

21.3 inches Feb. 1983 Very Strong El Nino

El Nino doesn’t cause big snowstorms, but it helps make them stronger, due to a stronger southern jet stream (called the “Subtropical Jet”). More intense storms lead to greater vertical motion, which:

Increases precipitation and increases winds around the storm which then brings more moisture off the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. MOISTURE-remember that word.

Part 2-What Are The Odds?

What are the odds that 4 of the Top 5 biggest snowstorms occurred in the past 20 years, when we’ve been keeping official records for 145 years? And that 3 of the Top 4 have occurred in the past SEVEN years? And that every one of the Top 5 has occurred since 1983? Something seems “odd”.

And while we’re at it, what are the odds of the 2 snowiest winters (out of 145) happening in the past 7 years? And that those winters smashed the previous record set in the relatively recent winter of 1995-96?

And while we’re talking about MOISTURE, what are the odds that we have had:
Wettest Year
Wettest Summer
Wettest Single Day
Wettest March
Wettest June
Wettest July
Wettest August
…all in the past 7 years?

It’s Not Just The Pacific Ocean
While eyes all over the world have focused on the record El Nino in the Tropical Pacific, there has been very little said about the amazing warming in the Atlantic. Here’s a map of ocean temperatures compared to normal (“anomalies”):[[366586741, C]]

Yikes! Those dark colors are up to 10 degrees above normal-record levels in some places. What are the odds?

Oh, what about the Gulf of Mexico, you ask? Here’s the wide view of anomalies that includes the Gulf and much of the Atlantic:[[366591251, C]]

Above normal water temperatures in the Gulf, too? What are the odds? It gets a bit technical, but basically, warmer water leads to warmer air, which can hold more moisture than colder air. The big storms are “fed” by more moisture, which leads to more precipitation. When it’s cold enough, it leads to more snow.

Why Are The Oceans So Warm?
There is an imbalance in the energy entering and leaving the earth. More enters than leaves. Some of the energy has gone to heating of the surface of the earth and the atmosphere, which is known as “global warming”. But most of the excess heat goes into the oceans. About 90% of the excess heat goes there! And in the eyes of some: “Why should we care if the oceans warm up?” At some point, in some way, the ocean will get its’ revenge.[[366301711, C]]

Did global warming “cause” the blizzard? Of course not. Storms form all the time. Sometimes, they are even big and cause a lot of snow. The “natural variability” of weather is what makes it hard to see trends. But I’ve been forecasting the weather professionally for more than 40 years, and I’ve had enough of tip-toeing around what has become increasingly obvious in recent years:

  • Global warming is making the oceans warmer
  • Global warming is causing sea levels to rise, so the same storm now will produce more coastal flooding than in the past.
  • Global warming is probably a factor in stronger El Nino’s
  • Global warming is probably a factor in the biggest snowstorms being bigger
  • Global warming is probably a factor in making a greater percentage of hurricanes and typhoons being stronger
  • Global warming is probably a factor in the biggest storms causing more rain and worse flooding

This is not a theory based on computer models of the future. This is happening NOW. And I haven’t even mentioned the possible influence on weather patterns due to melting ice in the Arctic. That is a subject for another day. So is why the coastal flooding from the Blizzard of 2016 is extra troubling: it only took ONE high tide to cause record flooding in Cape May, Stone Harbor, and Lewes, DE. That blog comes next…

Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz
Chief Meteorologist, NBC10 Philadelphia

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