New England weather has always been fickle, but even by local standards the past month stands out as abnormally abnormal. With three days of record warmth reaching June-like levels, severe thunderstorms, a tornado in Western Massachusetts, rapidly melting snow, and even more warmth on the way, this February is going into the record books as one wacky month.
Yes, there was indeed a tornado in Goshen over the weekend, as confirmed Monday by the National Weather Service. This is the first recorded February tornado in the state and comes on the heels of the first severe thunderstorm watch in February in the Boston area at about the same time last year.
All this unusual weather begs the question: Is this climate change? The answer is: Sort of. No one single event is climate change, but the odds of these occurrences can increase as a result of it. It’s like loading the dice. As the climate continues to change, our weather will throw us more surprises.
No one can say if another February warmth outbreak is going to occur in 2018 or 2019, but we do know the odds of such winter warm spells are going to continue to grow. The climate models forecast more extreme swings in our weather within the general warming pattern.
It’s really no surprise that we are seeing all-time monthly records for February or severe weather. Since February temperatures are on the rise and have been for over a hundred years, it stands to reason that recordbreaking warm days are in our future. Warmer air holds more moisture and produces more thunderstorms.
Another factor adding to the growing warmth is snow, or lack thereof. While total snowfall in New England has actually increased over the past decade, how our snow falls and melts has changed (I believe the increase in snowfall in southern New England is temporary). Strangely, during the past 5 years, 50% of winter snowfall has fallen in just the month of February.
Typically, snow would be spread much more evenly from December to March. This erratic pattern has led to a decrease in the overall amount of winter days with snow cover. Without that cover, we lose the chilling influence of the snow and subsequently temperatures become warmer — it’s the same reason scientists are so worried about the lack of ice in the Arctic.
We won’t know for another decade or so if these changes are to become part of the regular winter pattern or not, but it is worrisome. The $7.6 billion winter sports industry is certainly nervous. In fact, the expansion of the Balsams resort in northernmost New Hampshire is actually banking on these changes. The resort figures that being so far north and so high in elevation will eventually allow them to corner the market on skiing and other winter sports in New England as resorts to the south go out of business.
It’s not just February that’s getting warmer, either. Our winter trend is unmistakable; temperatures are rising.
Pointing out a cold day, week, or even month like February 2015, as proof that climate change isn’t real is ridiculous. Even an A student can fail an exam once in a while. In a generally warmer world, there will still be cold winters, just not nearly as many.
New England’s weather is likely going to continue to look very different in the coming decades. The map below, adapted from a research paper in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate, tells an important story. The authors of the paper concluded the number of sub-freezing days across the northern tier of the United States is going to dramatically decrease in the middle of this century. This will mean less snow, more heat, and yes, likely more severe weather, even in winter.
What’s occurred this month might not occur again for a few years, but rest assured, it’s just a preview of what’s to come. The change underway now is due to factors that have already been baked into the system. How things will unfold long after we’re gone remains the big question.
You can follow Dave Epstein on Twitter @growingwisdom