The fourth nor’easter of the month barreled into New York City yesterday, bringing with it between four and thirteen inches of snow, wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour, and the usual helping of transit chaos. Mayor de Blasio got to wear his special windbreaker, and Andrew Cuomo’s press team sent out the customary photo of the governor spontaneously rescuing a stalled tractor trailer. Everything in its right place, save for the Earth’s position in relation to the sun, which would technically suggest it is, in fact, springtime.
You remember spring, yes? It’s the good season, blooming with flowers and endless possibilities, like leaving your apartment without being impaled by an icicle. But nor’easters do not care about the astronomical seasons, or your outdoor drinking plans. They are here to remind you that an extra hour of daylight may not solve all your problems after all.
If you feel like winter’s finish line has continuously moved back in recent years, you’re not imagining things. According to a paper published in the journal Nature Communications earlier this month, late-winter storms are becoming both more common and more intense. Looking at data from the past sixty years, the study found that “as the Arctic transitions from a relatively cold state to a warmer one, the frequency of severe winter weather in mid-latitudes increases…with the strongest association in the eastern third” of the United States.
That study builds on a growing body of research, commonly referred to as the “warm Arctic, cold continents” theory. As we noted in January, several scientists have posited that a rapidly warming Arctic has messed up the polar vortex — the circular band of air sitting in the stratosphere above the North Pole — resulting in an invasion of cold air and moisture, carried by a weakened jet stream, into our part of the world. There are a few different meteorological explanations here, but they all point to a conclusion that you may have observed on your own: Between 1959 and 2008, the Northeast averaged between five and seven winter storms per decade, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Over the last ten years, we’ve had twenty-six.
It’s not just that severe winter storms are becoming more common; they also seem to be happening later and later. “In the past three years, we’ve seen polar vortex disruptions in February and March, which have set us up for cold late winters,” Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research and lead author of the Nature Communications study, tells the Voice. “This parade of nor’easters that we’ve seen this month is consistent with the study overall.”
Beyond the inconvenience, there are more serious consequences to these late-season storms. “People throughout the metro area are conscious of snow, but for those who live in coastal locations, there’s the big risk of flooding, which is what we’re seeing with more of these storms as well,” notes Ben Orlove, a senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society and a professor at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs. “We’re only beginning to realize this is a problem with winter nor’easters.”
While Wednesday’s storm brought only minor coastal flooding, it’s worth remembering that some climate scientists believe the city is “still in denial of the long-term consequences of sea level rise,” as Columbia University climate scientist Klaus Jacob wrote in 2015. Last year, a study focused on the tristate area found that New York was particularly vulnerable to coastal flooding from winter storms. And by the end of the century, a Sandy-level flood is expected to happen once a decade.
In the meantime, it might be comforting to know that you’re not alone in your dismay, and that even the experts feel betrayed by the sight of a sooty snow mound this time of year. “We’re all just depressed at this point,” says Orlove. “No one wants to see snow on the daffodils.”