Jennifer Francis, a professor at the Rutgers Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences in New Brunswick, N.J., was one of the authors of a study recently published in the journal Nature Communications that linked the frequency of extreme winter weather in the eastern United States to rising Arctic temperatures.
The study suggested that climate change won’t turn New England into a placid tropical paradise, but rather a place with stormier — and, at times, bitterly cold — winters.
We asked her what scientists think lies in the future for New England’s weather.
If climate change is warming the planet, won’t winters be nicer here in New England?
Winters will get warmer on average, with fewer records broken for cold and more records set for high temperatures. However, I also expect to see more frequent long-duration cold spells and heavy snowstorms. More moisture in the air, warmer ocean temperatures along the East Coast, and the right jet stream pattern all conspire to fuel nor’easters.
Why the extreme weather?
A growing pile of studies suggests that rapid Arctic warming (at least twice as fast as elsewhere) causes the westerly winds of the jet stream to weaken, which allows frigid Arctic air to bulge southward. Our study suggests that these bulges are much more likely when Arctic heat waves occur, and the cold air prefers to sit in the Eastern United States. This placement tends to align the storm track along the East Coast, favoring the development of nor’easters. (We also found that drought and heat in the Western United States is prolonged by Arctic warming and ice loss.)
Is there other research that supports your finding?
Yes, many groups around the world are investigating various complex linkages between the Arctic and weather patterns. These connections vary with season and location, but it’s clear that rapid changes in the far north are disrupting normal patterns. Owing to the atmosphere’s complexity, though, some studies are unable to separate a signal from the noise. Other changes in the climate system happening simultaneously also muddy the waters.
Are there any folks who should be particularly wary about the coming changes?
New England will always be a wonderful place to live. That said, some areas may become uninhabitable, such as low-lying, east-facing coastal neighborhoods that have been pummeled this winter. Between accelerating sea-level rise and more frequent strong nor’easters, coastal flooding is a clear risk.