The storm of January 22-24, 2016 was remarkable for the wide area it affected with blizzard conditions and record snowfall.
Over 30 inches of snow fell in five states, and the major cities from Washington to New York were shut down.
The storm can be traced to the pattern that accompanies El Niño. But what fuels such a violent outburst of Mother Nature? And is it a manifestation of global warming with the suggestion that worse is in store?
First, The Name: Jonas vs. GAB16
The Weather Channel called this storm Jonas. Decoded Science has quibbled with naming winter storms because many of them aren’t really storms at all, if the definition of a storm is an entity with a significant low pressure center. We’ve chosen to name weather patterns, such as Omni, which produced several rounds of record heat in the east, tornadoes in the heartland, and snow in the Rockies.
At least this storm had a deep low pressure center, but Decoded Science will use a different name — one that we think conveys more information.
We take our cue from the recent climate conference in Paris, dubbed COP21 for the 21st Conference of the Parties. We’re naming this GAB16 for Great Atlantic Blizzard of 2016. Everyone will recognize what we mean, whereas ‘Jonas’ could refer to any guy named Jonas.
GAB16 And El Niño
Weather systems are connected around the globe. El Niño creates a powerful low-latitude jet that crosses the Pacific and brings storms to the US west coast.
Sometimes the jet stream continues across the US and storms re-form east of the Rockies and move to the east coast, where they re-develop into nor’easters.
A Second Factor: Cold Air Settles South
In order for a nor’easter to produce snow, cold air must be in place to its north.
Recent years have featured cold winters in the central and eastern US, and these seem to be connected to the warming of the polar region (warming at about twice the rate of the rest of the planet). This warming of the pole has actually pushed cold air from the sub-polar area farther south than normal.
In any event, the eastern US was cold enough to snow north of the Carolinas. And snow it did!
How Does A Storm Like GAB16 Work?
Extra-tropical storms are fueled by the potential energy of warm air next to cold. When the warm air rises and the cold air sinks to produce the lowest potential energy state of warm air on top of cold, the potential energy is converted to the kinetic energy of wind. In addition, the rising warm air, provided it has enough moisture content, produces heavy precipitation.
When a ripple in the jet stream (meteorologists call it a trough) meets adjacent cold and warm air masses, it can set off a chain of events that leads to a nor’easter. It doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the trough comes through with a few snow flurries and a modest cold front. Think of a rock on top of a hill. It may sit there for years until a weasel trying to escape from a coyote bumps into it and starts it tumbling down the hill. The potential energy the rock had at the top of the hill, which was always there, is suddenly converted to energy of motion.
As the incipient GAB16 rippled through the jet stream into the eastern United States, warm and humid air from the Gulf of Mexico pushed north against the arctic air which covered the rest of eastern North America.
The storm began to deepen (central pressure fell). As it neared the east coast, GAB16 acquired a new source of potential energy — warm air over the Atlantic Ocean. The one-two punch of Gulf and Atlantic air was particularly powerful because the water temperatures are well above normal.
Effects of GAB16: Snow
Low pressure first forms well east of a trough in the jet stream. As the storm matures, the potential energy is exhausted and the storm becomes vertical. As this happens, the surface low slows down to let the trough catch up. The result is a prolonged period of precipitation near the coast.
Washington received snow continuously for 36 hours. The big cities from Washington to New York accumulated about two feet of snow, while areas to the west, where the higher terrain forces the air upwards and squeezes out the moisture, received over three feet.
Effects Of GAB16: Coastal Flooding
As the pressure lowers in a nor’easter, the wind, directly proportional to pressure gradient (change in pressure with distance), increases.
Coastal areas of Delaware and New Jersey bore the brunt of the coastal winds, which gusted to hurricane force, and flooding was widespread.
It could have been better, but it could have been worse:
- The storm came at the time of full moon — when the tides are about a foot higher than normal on the mid-Atlantic coast.
- The storm came about half way between perigee (moon’s closest approach to the earth) and apogee (the opposite). At perigee the tides would have been a foot higher; at apogee they would have been a foot lower.
Effects Of GAB16: Traffic Problems
Despite the fact that this storm was forecast well in advance, people still ventured out in their vehicles and there were hours-long tie-ups and some fatalities.
Explaining human nature is not my field of expertise.
Is This Just Another Big Storm Or A Prelude Of things To Come?
Decoded Science has repeatedly noted that no single weather event can be linked with certainty to climate change.
Still, the question lingers: Is this just a one-off storm of the decade or an indication that the climate has changed and that bigger storms are coming?
This question reminds me of a story:
A man walks into a bar and announces, “Big John’s a-comin’.”
The patrons scramble to leave, but before they can get to the door a huge man bursts through, strides to the bar, and orders a bottle of whiskey, which the cowering bartender provides. The giant chugs the fifth and demands another. As the bartender puts the second bottle on the bar he gets up the nerve to stammer,
“Wh-what’s the rush, Mister?”
The big man replies, “Ain’t ya heard? Big John’s a-comin‘.”
Maybe GAB16 was just another big storm. And maybe something bigger is a-comin’.