US cold wave: Whats causing Buffalos worst-ever blizzard?

US cold wave: What's causing Buffalo's worst-ever blizzard?

Buffalo, the second largest city in New York, has experienced brutal blizzards in the past, but what struck them on Christmas weekend this year has been their worst.

As the blizzard, which National Weather Service termed “life-threatening”, “once in a generation”, and “crippling”, roared across western New York before the Christmas weekend, it wreaked havoc. With as much as 49 inches of snow on the ground, motorists were trapped inside their cars, power lines shut down and emergency crews were unable to reach residents freezing in their frigid homes or inside cars on the highways. With many grocery stores in the Buffalo area closed and driving bans in place, some people pleaded on social media for donations of food and diapers.

News reports confirmed that the lethal blizzard had killed more than 27 people so far, in the snow-bound region around Buffalo, as the region reeled from one of the worst weather-related disasters in its history. (Much of the rest of the United States was hit by ferocious winter conditions as well, where another two dozen deaths have been reported)

Those who lost their lives around Buffalo were found in cars, homes and snowbanks. Some died while shoveling snow, or from a cardiac arrest or some other medical crisis since emergency crews could not reach them in time.

The extent of the damage

Many people woke up without power on Christmas morning and many more had their holiday travel plans upended. The Wall Street Journal reported citing FlightAware that 3,182 flights within, into or out of the US, were cancelled on Sunday due to the severe winter storm blowing across the country.

Till Monday evening, the operations of 3,800 flights were suspended, including 2,500 run by Southwest Airlines. The Buffalo Niagara International Airport, which shut on Friday due to “hazardous weather conditions”, would remain closed until Tuesday, said reports. As many as 25,700 people had no power on Monday evening in New York and Maine, added reports. In Buffalo, authorities claimed that the number of fatality cases is expected to go up in the coming days.

What caused this blizzard?

On December 22, NASA’s Earth Observatory had recorded that “a blast of Arctic air will plunge south and help trigger a powerful blizzard that will churn through the central and eastern US.”

However, the scope of the storm turned out to be nearly “unprecedented”, stretching from the Great Lakes near Canada to the Rio Grande along the border with Mexico. Forecasters have termed the blizzard as different from the usual weather events and called it a “bomb cyclone.” While this kind of storm is not exceedingly rare, this one is very strong, with high winds that are bringing heavy snow or rain to many areas.

What is a bomb cyclone?

It is defined as “a powerful, rapidly intensifying storm associated with a sudden and significant drop in atmospheric pressure.” In a bomb cyclone the pressure drops dramatically in the low-pressure mass — by at least 24 millibars in 24 hours. Storms form when a mass of low-pressure air meets a high-pressure mass but in a bomb cyclone the pressure drops rapidly in the low-pressure mass. This quickly increases the pressure difference, or gradient, between the two air masses, therefore making the winds stronger.

The intensity of the current storm raging across the US is tied to this “bomb cyclone,” that explosively intensified as it swept from Indiana into Ontario and Quebec between Thursday and Friday afternoons. The storm’s pressure plummeted about 35 millibars in that time, well over the threshold for a meteorological bomb — 24 millibars in 24 hours. The lower the pressure, the stronger the storm.

Spiralling over eastern Canada, the storm has generated a massive wind field affecting much of the eastern United States with strong gusts and bitterly cold air. As the powerful winds blew over the relatively warm waters of the Great Lakes, intense and persistent lake-effect snow developed. Besides howling, chilly winds, Buffalo is facing the onslaught of this “lake-effect snow”.

What is lake-affect snow?

The bitter cold dry air from Canada sweeps across the relatively warmer Great Lakes, which then sucks up more and more moisture that falls as snow. The Buffalo region of the US has been largely affected by this lake-affect snow.

Lake-effect snow is common in the areas surrounding the Great Lakes. (Lake Erie located west of Buffalo is one of the Great Lakes) Such snowfalls are most common in autumn in the Great Lakes region, when lake water temperatures are relatively warm, above 40F, and cold air systems blow across them, condensing the moisture in the air into the snow.

Has climate change further triggered the lake-effect snow?

The frequency and intensity of these winter storms is increasing as global temperatures warm, the direct result of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, said climate experts, according to news reports. Models predicted that additional warming due to climate change will lead to more lake-effect snow as well as lake-effect rain.

Experts are saying the climate change crisis may have contributed to the intensity of the storm. That’s because the atmosphere can carry more water vapor, which acts as fuel,  Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder told AP.

Buffalo has a history of blizzards

Considered to be Buffalo’s worst natural disaster (until now), the ‘Blizzard of 1977’, which did not have much snowfall, surprisingly unlike the 2022 disaster. On December 28 of 1977, winds gusted to 75 mph, temperatures fell below zero, and massive drifts of wind-swept snow accumulated in the streets. The city was completely paralysed, people were snowmobile for around four days, until the harsh wind and frigid conditions finally let up. By then, 29 people had died, mostly in cars stuck in the blowing snow.

Both the 1977 and this 2022 events involved blizzard conditions that lasted for many hours, and visibility stayed around zero. And, like in 1977, this current blizzard brought in extreme cold and winds and could be deadly for anyone exposed to the elements.

January 1985: In January 1985, too, Buffalo was struck by a blizzard. Nearly three feet of snow accumulated in Buffalo amid 50 mph winds and below-zero temperatures. However, Buffalo did not want a repeat of the 1977 calamity and had introduced a six-day travel ban earlier. The mayor had famously advised residents to “stay inside, grab a six-pack and watch a good football game.” Conditions were reportedly worse than the 1977 storm, but the well-enforced driving ban prevented casualties.

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