Will climate change mean that we will have more snow events to plow?

Lake effect snows

Climate change may mean even more plowing in areas where lake effect snow is common.

Question: I am a county commissioner in Western, NY.. in charge of planning for snow removal. If temperatures are going to increase by 3 to 5°F and precipitation is going to increase by an average of 10% by 2050, what is the net result for the number of snow events that we will need to plow?

Answer: You are asking a really important question. All of the observed changes we are experiencing in the New York’s climate will continue to affect municipalities and their budgets for snow removal and infrastructure repair, but we can’t provide the kind of exact projections for the number of snow events that your county will need to plan for next season or over the next few years.

What we do know is that our winters are warmer than they were in the 1970s (by 4°F in the Northeast), and while we may be getting the same amount of snowfall overall, we are seeing a decrease in the amount of snow cover, because the snow that does fall doesn’t stay on the ground as long with warmer winters. We are also seeing a 74% increase in extreme precipitation events in the Northeast, which means that when it does rain or snow, its often in a very heavy event (a lot of snow at one time). New York is also vulnerable to icing events.

New York State commissioned a very thorough report on climate change impacts that is available on the web See Chapter 9 (Transportation) of the report Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID). According to this report:

“While the severity of such extreme snowfalls is likely to increase, the number of days per year with snow on the ground is likely to decrease. On the benefit side, it is more likely than not that the need for snow removal and salting of highways will gradually decrease for low-elevation, southern, and coastal areas of the state. The need for snow removal and salting under future climate conditions may change little in northern New York, though it may increase in western New York in the next couple of decades in areas that are subject to episodes of extreme winter lake effects.”

Additionally, New York’s lake effect regions are particularly prone to more intense winter snow events because warmer lake temperatures will reduce ice cover days and increase winter lake water evaporation, leading to more humidity in the air above that can come down as snow with below-freezing upper atmosphere temperatures.

At Cornell, we are working to develop new climate models that will provide more accurate, shorter-term climate projections, for the 3- to 6-month to 10-year range, which may provide more useful information to local decision makers. Please stay tuned to our efforts to create more accurate models and tools for stakeholders. You can access resources on the Cornell Climate Change website.

A more immediate impact for your department may be the continued increase in extremely heavy rainfall events that lead to flooded streams and that affects bridges, roads, and culverts. In this case, emergency preparedness planning, and planning for assessing roads, bridges and culverts for proper sizing, and maintaining healthy streambanks, is really important. There are excellent resources related to infrastructure and flooding from New York State, several counties, and Cornell Cooperative extension at the Estuary Watershed Resilience Project website.

Category: Climate Change Q&A

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