When Global Warming Brings Snow, Sleet, and Ice.

The recent winter weather that buried Buffalo, NY under more than 5 feet of snow and ground life to a halt should attract the attention of US businesses leaders across the country. Although Buffalo is prone to heavy snowfalls, the long-term outlook for more frequent and severe snowstorms for business is not good. Extreme winter storms in the US have been increasing in frequency and severity over the past 30 years (graph “US winter storm loss trends, 1980-2011”: http://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/catastrophes-us), with average annual associated financial losses nearly doubling over that time.

Heavy snowfalls can halt local business activity and cause extensive physical damage. Establishments from businesses to schools and government buildings were barricaded in and could not open their doors. Driving bans were even imposed on several areas. While damage was widespread as the snow was caving in windows, doors, and roofs, some business, like Schmitt’s Collision and Glass and VSP Marketing Graphics Group, had complete cave-ins and equipment losses approaching $1 million. Even the Bills-Jets NFL game was moved to Detroit, losing the Bills both home advantage and ticket sales revenue.

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An extreme snowfall can also initiate indirect economic losses and cascade into supply chain disruptions. One hour down the blocked NY State Throughway, Rochester companies have had difficulty receiving shipments from normal supply routes and have scrambled to find replacement goods with varying degrees of success. Buffalo is home to major distributors for businesses such as the area’s major supermarket chain Wegmans. The snowfall has impacted the heavily used trucking route that runs through Buffalo from areas as distant as Wisconsin. Trucking companies are also sending out refrigerated trailers earlier than normal, at an additional cost, to prevent food from freezing because of the extreme cold.

Weather forecasts predict the snowfall to be followed by warmer weather and rain, which could lead to severe flooding from snow melt. Flood warnings have been issued as light rain and temperatures in the 50s and 60s threaten to flood areas that have never been at risk of flood before. Governor Cuomo commented on the new dangers arising from the snow melt and recommended people to leave at-risk homes early:

“Err on the side of caution…Flooding, in my opinion, is worse than dealing with snow,” Cuomo said. “It’s not water. It’s a toxic brew.”

Although it seems counter-intuitive, these winter storms are not getting worse despite global warming, but rather because of it. The complexity of this result illustrates how confusing climate change signals can be and the importance of creating accurate awareness. Scientists point to a weakening of the jet stream, the Earth’s halo of fast moving air, caused by warming in the arctic outpacing that of the rest of the world. A slower jetstream tends to meander and is more easily pushed off track, bringing warm air further north and cold air further south as its normally straight flow forms waves.

vortex1114Experts trace the recent jet stream wanderings to Typhoon Nuri. The typhoon pushed the jet stream off course and north with a large body of warm air as it moved into the northern Pacific. As the air current bulged northward, arctic air downstream had nowhere to go but south, pushing the jet stream ahead of it over the continental US. Events like this year’s “Arctic Blast” and last year’s famous “Polar Vortex” will be more easily triggered by climate change-weakened jet streams. This chain of events, along with a Lake Erie’s warming by long-term climatic changes, caused the flow of very cold air to pick up additional moisture and dump it on Buffalo as “lake effect” snow. Energy from Typhoon Nuri then proceeded to be carried down the jet stream to Buffalo, resulting in the warming spell that causes flooding. (See Al Jazeera’s excellent in-depth explanation of this phenomenon).

As the climate continues to change, events like these are predicted to become regular occurrences and not outlying record-setting events. Businesses need to ready themselves for a future of 6-foot snowfalls and be better prepared to act quickly.

Image: (c) Munich Re, Getty Images, and AccuWeather.com