Frequency of Big Snows: Northeast U.S. and Colorado

Guest post by Richard Keen, PhD

I’m sure by now every snow freak in the Northeast U.S. has pored over the “Billboard Top 40” (actually, 41) list of major snow storms since 1955. If you haven’t, go to “The Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale (NESIS)”, posted at http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/snow-and-ice/nesis.php

I’d like to thank our friends at the NWS and NCDC, Paul Kocin, Louis Uccellini, Jay Lawrimore, and Michael Squires, for their work at putting this together. For me it brings back the memories of the great school-closing dumps of my early days in Philadelphia. I “survived” numbers 3, 5, and 6 on the list, and made enough money shoveling neighbors out of numbers 5, 21, and 26 to buy my second telescope. Number 30 left our house without power for five days, during which we ate hot dogs cooked in the fireplace. But enough of the memories. How are today’s kids in the Northeast faring in their quest to earn enough money digging snow to buy themselves telescopes?

To put the storms in a timewise perspective, here’s a chart of each event, plotted by date and NESIS magnitude.

Kocin et al. have simplified the storm magnitudes into categories (1 to 5, with “major” being 3 and above). Anecdotally, only two winters have had three “major” storms, 1960-61 (when I earned my telescope) and 2009-10.

Apparently today’s kids are no better or worse off. There’s 55 seasons (54 full winters and two half winters) of storms represented in the Kocin et al. catalog, so I’ve split the record into two halves to see if recent years have had more or fewer of these great snow storms. Results are summarized in the table.

The split couldn’t be more even, with 20 storms in the first 27.5 seasons and 21 in the second 27.5 winters. The accumulated NESIS index (sum of the NESIS for the 20 or 21 storms) is almost as evenly split. The implications for climate change are that as far as Northeast snow storms are concerned, there is no change.

I now live in Colorado, where I am the co-op observer for Coal Creek Canyon, 8950 feet up in the foothills west of Denver. An endearing feature of the local climate is the frequent occurrence of 40-inch-plus snow storms. I now have 32 years of snow storm records, and as with the Northeast snow storms, the 40-inch events are evenly split (7 and 7) between the first and last halves of the record.

You may read more about the Colorado storms in “Thirty years in the Bull’s-eye: a climatology of meter-class snow storms in the Front Range foothills”, by Richard Keen,

5th annual Hydrologic Sciences Student Research Symposium, University of Colorado, Boulder, April 1-2, 2010, posted at

http://hydrosciences.colorado.edu/symposium/abstract_details.php?abstract_id=26

Conclusion: there appears to be little or no change in the frequency of major snow storms over the past 30 to 55 years, at least in the Northeast U.S. and in the Front Range foothills of Colorado.

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44 thoughts on “Frequency of Big Snows: Northeast U.S. and Colorado

  1. OT
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  2. I had a wonderful skiing holiday in Vermont in 1996 and can confirm that we had a lot of snow, and very cold nights. Driving up from Boston on the night of arrival was exciting to say the least over cleared but very icy roads. But we did learn that when the temperature is 20 below ice is not slippery but like driving on gravel so speeds could be increased from a crawl to something reasonable. We also learned that if you wanted to drive your car in the morning you kept it running all night.

  3. “Snowfalls are now just a thing of the past,” claimed the Independent, back in March 2000:
    Britain’s winter ends tomorrow with further indications of a striking environmental change: snow is starting to disappear from our lives.
    Sledges, snowmen, snowballs and the excitement of waking to find that the stuff has settled outside are all a rapidly diminishing part of Britain’s culture, as warmer winters – which scientists are attributing to global climate change – produce not only fewer white Christmases, but fewer white Januaries and Februaries.

    Why was none of this part of the climategate inquiry? It came right from the CRU!
    According to Dr David Viner, a senior research scientist at the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia,within a few years winter snowfall will become “a very rare and exciting event”.
    “Children just aren’t going to know what snow is,” he said.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/snowfalls-are-now-just-a-thing-of-the-past-724017.html

  4. I have lived in New Hampshire for 15 years, and 2010 is certainly one of the snowiest that I can remember (based on the height of the snow pack in my front yard). And it’s not even February yet…

  5. Richard,
    Maybe you could send a copy of your post to Michio Kaku. He was on television talking about swings related to more water vapor in the atmosphere because of global warming. Now the Solomon et al study cited by Roger Pielke in attempting to track current understanding of water vapor concentrations says to the contrary:
    “Stratospheric water vapor concentrations decreased by about 10% after the year 2000. Here we show that this acted to slow the rate of increase in global surface temperature over 2000-2009 by about 25% compared to that which would have occurred due only to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. More limited data suggest that stratospheric water vapor probably increased between 1980 and 2000, which would have enhanced the decadal rate of surface warming during the 1990s by about 30% compared to estimates neglecting this change. These findings show that stratospheric water vapor represents an important driver of decadal global surface climate change.”
    First I’m going to confess ignorance on the contemporaneous quantitative relation of stratospheric water vapor to tropospheric water vapor. But the study goes on to suggest that the missing 10% in the stratosphere shares partial responsibility for the flat temperatures of the last decade (and that a 30% upward anamoly in stratospheric water vapor in the 1980s and 90s contributed signficantly to the observed rise in global temperature during those decades.
    One supposes that a downward anamoly does not necessarily represent lower inputs from various ‘tions’ (stolen from a comment to one of these threads, I can’t remember which and have no idea if it was original) – e.g., evaporation, transvapiration, and oxygenation of hydrocarbons — but could also indicate a lower atmospheric dwell time (i.e. more precipitation) or anamoly in transport between the troposphere and the stratosphere.
    But I will say that when I heard Michio Kaku spouting off about this stuff on the Today show a couple days ago, the first thing that occured to me was that, if there is a lot of precipitation, that would mean less water vapor in the air and less warming because it is a more powerful greenhouse gas and one of the principal modeled amplifiers for CO2 generated warming.
    This all might be a furthering of the point that the models don’t get clouds. Because it seems to make a fair amount of difference what form this water vapor takes. So at some point you get aggregation to clouds of different sorts at different levels in the atmosphere and these, in turn, have the effect of both reflecting solar radiation out and thermal radiation back, the net of which varies significantly by cloud type.
    So taking this cloud formation challenge to the accuracy of the models seems, in my mind, to extend to the question of dwell time for water vapor. The aggregation and interaction of water vapor with cooler air masses, if it leads to more precipitation would be another factor that the models probably have no grip on.
    Conceivably it is a dynamic equilibrium. According to simply physical theory, you get more evaporation at warmer temps, but, theoretically saturation points have moved up as well assuming temp. increases in the troposphere at relevant heights. So you get modest additional water vapor retained in the atmosphere and modest additional precip eventually as the balance shifts toward the new saturation points.
    But what if the additional evaporation actually leads to — as Kaku suggests in what appears to be a wild ass guess but broken clocks can be right twice a day — significantly increased precipitation. These ‘swings’ it would seem would wring out the atmosphere and diminish the water vapor forcing counteracting the modeled amplification.
    So it sure seems like other cycles are in play if you got a 30% increase in stratospheric water vapor for two decades and then a 10% decrease. Going back to the basic question, is CO2 the wave or an oscillation around the wave.
    Or to put it another way:
    Barbara Streisand’s hands are like butter. Talk amongst yourselves.
    Brian

  6. Dr. Keen, my family moved to 20 miles north of Boston, Jan, 1960. I began working that year too, shoveling driveways.

  7. Thank you. Very interesting. I had not seen that. I was born in ’55, grew up in Queens, lived mostly on Long Island and I clearly recall many of the storms on the list. The linked maps are very helpful.
    About 10 years ago, I got a single-stage snow blower that was intended to handle up to 9″. That would handle the overwhelming majority of snowfalls we get here. Last year, I replaced it with a larger unit that handles up to 13″. So far, I haven’t used it where the snow was not over the top of the front. I don’t remember this many snowfalls over 12″ in a two-year period. Anecdotal, I know … but we’re human and we think anecdotally. I also remember years where I never even touched a snow shovel.
    As we Noo Yawkuhs like to say, “Weah’s da global wawmin’?!!”

  8. I grew up in Denver, and have now lived in southern New England for 30 years. Yes, the 93-94 and 95-96 seasons had a lot of snow; over 120″ at my house. What is different this year compared to those seasons is that in January this year, we’ve had little to no above freezing temperatures. When it has been sunny it has been extremely cold. As a result, the snow from these large storms just keeps piling up. In 95-96, we would get a 20″ storm, maybe a week of 35 degrees and sun, the snow would melt/compress before the next big storm. No such thing here this winter, which is why there’s an average depth of 3.5-4 ft in my yard now.
    I keep telling my family in Denver that Denver doesn’t have winter. The mountains are a totally different animal. Denver gets a 20″ snowfall and two days later it’s 57 degrees and it all happily melts away and then stays in the 40’s or 50’s until the next snow. I never knew what winter was until I moved to New England. There’s a reason people retire to Florida from here… it just beats you down after 30-40 years.

  9. It’s been really nice this year in Denver. A couple of cold snaps is all. Hardly any snow.
    Thank goodness there is a lot of publicity regarding the big storms out east. Otherwise, I would be hearing about ‘global warming’ here in Denver.
    Today we are supposed to get up in the sixties. I just love January in Denver.
    Up in the mountains, we have an entirely different story.
    ftp://ftp-fc.sc.egov.usda.gov/CO/Snow/snow/watershed/daily/basinplotco11.gif
    Nice down here, snowy up there for the skiers, the trout and our lawns later in the year. Perfect!
    Old Bill McNichols lost his job as mayor when we got whacked with 24″ of snow on Christmas Eve. He sent all the road crews home so they could be with their families on the Holiday. I believe that was in 82.

  10. This year’s snow piles resemble those from my southern New England youth in the ’60s. In Feb 1978 we had a blizzard that closed the State for a week — two weeks after an ice storm that snapped 8 inch diameter trees in half. In the winter of 1997 I shoveled the driveway 17 times. Nothing unusual is going on when looked at over a reasonable time period.

  11. Dear Dr. Keen
    I have been trying to get into contact with you.
    As regards to mean temps. here, I found essentially the same: “no change” during the past 37 years in Pretoria (South Africa) but some of my other results (on minima and maxima) are a bit puzzling. I double checked with La Paz, Bolivia and found essentially the same results, especially the decline in minimum temperatures….
    Here is my report with my results:
    http://www.letterdash.com/HenryP/assessment-of-global-warming-and-global-warming-caused-by-greenhouse-forcings-in-pretoria-south-africa
    I want to compare my results with your coal creek results, but I first need to know a few things about Colorado and your station. Do you have dry months during the year?
    Please let me hear from you!!

  12. I remember that #1 storm from 1993, I was staying at my sister’s place when it hit. It was a monster, lots of snow then freezing rain. Everything was closed except for the 7-11 store nearby. All the wine was sold out except for some Pinot Grigio and it was not very good. It was a terrible ordeal. I was supposed to be back in California, had some meeting at Schwab where we were planning on getting some UNIX servers. I thought it was critical for my career so I made my poor sister lug me to Dulles so I could fly back. What an ass I was back then, I am much less ambitous now.

  13. I suppose when it comes to actual perceptions there are factors that can influence that are not shown in this data.. for instance, how long did the snowpack linger – lots of big snowstorms in NYC and south often melt very quickly.. I think this year has been a bit different in that we’ve had some pretty big storms back to back to back with little break in temps – hence we have some pretty big piles of snow we seldom have had to deal with.. not to mention the big snows hitting on weekdays (school days) also hitting the “perception”.. i.e. perception isn’t always reality.. I now my own perception here in the Hudson Valley is it seems like a pretty normal winter, albeit colder than normal.

  14. Put finished to the theme that global warming creates atmospheric water reservoirs released as extraordinary ground snow cover. Clearly there is no massive (and hidden) amounts of water vapor lurking over our heads, causing massive snow storms when opportunity arises.
    I might be perceiving a relationship to El Nino, though.

  15. Pamela Gray that AO chart is telling, is me, or do I just see that our turn in the snow based on history, barrel is coming-in February for NE Oregon.
    BTW we in NE Oregon live in an area more like Colorado than the rest of Oregon
    -Most of it is Nevada/Northern Arizona with the West Side of the Cascades
    more like Central England with Cornwall on the south coast…

  16. On March 15, 1988, more than one hundred hours of continuous snow finally came to an end at Marquette Michigan, during which time the city was buried under 43 inches of snow
    I was there, so some of you sound like amateurs.
    Spend a few winters there with 144.5 inches of annual snowfall, Marquette, Michigan is considered the 2nd snowiest city in the United States

  17. Marquette, Michigan’s proximity to both lake effects snow and negative AO oscillation snow is the likely reason for your snowy environment. Not a bad place to live in my opinion. But move South when the next glacier advance hits.

  18. James Mayeau says:
    January 29, 2011 at 4:39 am
    Spike the ball and do the dance.
    That’s the end.
    __________________________
    With all respect, Sir, I disagree.
    They will not stop.
    For the CACC taliban, real scientific data means nothing and exists only to be manipulated.
    Regards,
    Ming

  19. Dave in Canmore says:
    I liked your blog post. Using data from dry months to take out the noise from clouds/precipitation is an interesting approach.
    thanks Dave, I do appreciate. I hope you gave my blog a few stars? I am still battling uphill here in South Africa against those who believe carbon dioxide is bad. I hope Dr. Keen also gets to read it and respond to it.
    http://www.letterdash.com/HenryP/assessment-of-global-warming-and-global-warming-caused-by-greenhouse-forcings-in-pretoria-south-africa

  20. After returning to my SC hometown after retirement 8 years ago we were having winters like I remembered from when I was a child. Cold nights (30s-40sF) and sunny 60s-70sF days with occasional freezes and years between snow. In fact, last winter was the first for snow since I moved back. We had about 5 inches and it was on the ground about 48 hours. This winter we have had two snowfalls; the first was like last winter, the second had the same accumulation, but was on the ground for over a week. I do not remember ever having two snowfalls in the same winter here in SC and would appreciate any tips for websites where I might find data on snowfall and temperatures for South Carolina and Georgia. It might make a nice newspaper story for all the retirees who have moved here to escape snow and are now wondering what happened to their ability to play golf most winter days.

  21. I’m just happy that up here in BC we only caught the edge of that system.
    Seems though the tree- hugger s have STFU, power outage has a way of convincing
    “those types” that loggers clearing cutlines is not a bad thing.
    d

  22. Looking at the chart of NE snowstorms in the chart above, it seems to me that the major snowstorms are concentrated in the first and last years of the record. A plot of the moving 5 year average would show this more clearly.
    So what we see is a U shaped graph which may have different mechanisms associated with each leg of the U. The fact that there are equal numbers of storms in the the first and second halves of a 55year record doesn’t really disprove that Global Warming is responsible for the recent upturn.

  23. With all respect, Sir, I disagree.
    They will not stop.
    For the CACC taliban, real scientific data means nothing and exists only to be manipulated.
    Regards,
    Ming
    ————————————————————————————-
    The whole point is that they don’t have a choice in the matter. We only have to convince the House Republicans, and by my way of thinking this is very persuasive argument.
    Here in California we passed Prop 26, which means that voters have to approve any carbon taxes, fees, or fines.
    Think of this as the memo that puts Arnold into retirement. No Climate Czar post. He’ll bow out quietly.

  24. I like evidence. This is good.
    The two whoopers around 95 are of some interest, but there is not enough data points to go beyond “random event”.

  25. I spent most of my life in the Midwest and recall plenty of snowstorms. But living in a lake-effect snow belt is an entirely different experience. The snow belts are very localized, so a small population is adversely affected by it. The West Michigan snowbelt I lived in for 16 years averaged 100 inches of snow/year. The number of actual snowstorms were not great, but a steady wind over Lake Michigan could deposit 3-6 inches of snow in a few hours. I recall one December where it snowed at least 3 inches a day every day–the entire month! Needless to say, we had ice dams on our roof, etc.
    Now I live in the Front Range of the Rockies, and I LOVE the 300 days/year of sunshine and the quickly-melting snow. I’m grateful when the mountains get lots of snow but equally grateful that the snow stays there.

  26. North winds blow across the widest stretch of open water of Lake Superior , that’s what I always thought caused the higher snowfall totals around Marquette. I don’t think it’s really Marquette on the lake with the greatest snowfall, I believe its actually measured at the TV6 grounds 5 miles from the lake in the higher elevations closer to Negaunee.

  27. Congratulations on the Pinewood Derby. Time well spent.
    I am wondering if the NESIS scale would be a better representation of the effects of large snowfalls if the duration of the snow on the ground could be considered. When a second or third snowfall comes before any substntial melting and the snow pack gets deeper, this affects the perceptioin of snow severity, and may also substantially affect people’s lives.

  28. Very interesting post Richard.
    A few notes: The general correlation of frequency of larger storms during El Nino years and the snowiest months of the year for Colorado are related to the larger physical fact that warmer air can carry more moisture and during El Nino years there tends to be more warmth and moisture available. This is also indicated in the longer term glacial records from Greenland ice cores, where the warmer years (relatively) saw a greater rate of accumulation of snowfall. See: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/pubs/alley2000/alley2000.gif
    As the above graph clear shows, warmer means greater snowfall rates as more moisture is avaiable. Of particular note in the graph above is the Younger Dryas period, the cooler period when the glaciers advanced EVEN THOUGH SNOWFALL RATES WERE LOWER. The reason is of course that glaciers advance more because of cooler summers when all the snow doesn’t melt, not because of larger rates of accumulation. Glacial periods are marked by lower temps and lower rates of accumulation, even though the glaciers advance. This basic physica fact is seen in ice cores from all over the world, but seems to be lost on some AGW skeptics, and I sort of half to laugh when AGW skeptics speak about large snowfalls as evidence AGAINST global warming when hundreds of thousands of years of ice core data tell us the exact opposite.
    2010 was the wettest year on record on a global basis, but the presence of large snowfalls and rainfalls in any particular region of the planet are neither evidence for nor against the presence of anthropogenic factors in this warming.
    Finally, I guess we need to get ready for cold here in Colorado early this week, though not much snow, as it will be too cold and the energy from the storm coming from the wrong (i.e. not the pacific) direction.

  29. Dr. Keen neglected to mention that the NESIS scale includes a population component. That inevitably weights recent Northeastern storms more heavily than past Northeastern storms. That is like saying hurricanes are more destructive today than 50 years ago. Of course! More people are in the way. So how bad are the storms in absolute terms?

  30. R. Gates says:
    January 30, 2011 at 10:07 am
    2010 was the wettest year on record on a global basis,
    I wonder how R. Gates came to this conclusion when NASA’s dataset only includes 14 years (1988-2001)?
    http://nvap.stcnet.com/
    Perhaps Gates is a God with unlimited knowledge that he can see results that are hidden from every other person on the planet.
    Regardless of his fantastic reading of ice core predictive capabilities, the NVAP data say that there is no trend in total precipitable water (TPW) or layered water vapor on decadal scales.
    “By examining the 12 year record [1988-1999], a decrease of TPW at a rate of -0.29 mm / decade is observed. This relationship is significant at the 95 % but not at the 99 % level. A downward trend would be intriguing since there should be a positive slope if a global warming signal was present. However, by subdividing the data into two halves (1988-1993) and 1994-1999, trends with opposite signs are detected. Since the trend is not robust by subdividing the data, we conclude the global TPW has no significant trend from the NVAP dataset studied here.”
    Statement on using existing nasa water vapor nvap dataset 1988-2001 for trends
    That’s the reason why you don’t see splashy trend charts of atmospheric water vapor anomalies next to GISS’ splashy trend charts of temperature.
    Because if they told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, even Ed Begley would be a pitchfork toting skeptic.

  31. What is the unit of measurement on the y-axis in this graph? My recollection is that NESIS counted population affected, amongst other factors, and not simply snow volume (as it should). That would confound any interpretation of trends. Do the authors have any data on total snow volumes of these storms?

  32. What I am curious to know is why so many people from Colorado are so active in the great AGW debate? As a percentage of the global population, I sense that Colorado, USA is highly over represented.

  33. Kan says:
    January 31, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    What I am curious to know is why so many people from Colorado are so active in the great AGW debate? As a percentage of the global population, I sense that Colorado, USA is highly over represented.

    UCAR.
    Mark

  34. R. Gates says:
    January 30, 2011 at 10:07 am
    “The general correlation of frequency of larger storms during El Nino years and the snowiest months of the year for Colorado are related to the larger physical fact that warmer air can carry more moisture and during El Nino years there tends to be more warmth and moisture available. This is also indicated in the longer term glacial records from Greenland ice cores, where the warmer years (relatively) saw a greater rate of accumulation of snowfall.”
    Incorrect. El Nino amplifies the low-latitude jet and causes more lows to track across the southern US, where they can create upslope flow along the east side of the Rockies. In general, the southern US from California to Florida is COOLER and wetter during el Nino. Meanwhile, the Cascades and northern Plains get warmer winters with LESS snow. So where’s all that warmth related moisture? Your simple hypothesis that warmer = wetter does not work. Meanwhile, La Nina bring more snow to the West slope of Colorado, the Cascades, and the northern plains – but isn’t it supposed to be cooler and drier? Again, warmer = wetter NOT! It’s the storm tracks, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts.
    “Glacial periods are marked by lower temps and lower rates of accumulation, even though the glaciers advance. This basic physica fact is seen in ice cores from all over the world, but seems to be lost on some AGW skeptics”
    Show me ice core results from Philadelphia that make your point! Greenland is a fair ways from Philly and Colorado, and the climate is rather different. A physical fact that you seem to miss is that the ice ages begin and grow when summers are cooler (as you note) but winters are warmer (with more moisture content and MORE snow), all due to orbital tilts and such (not greenhouse gases). Then the climate cools as the glaciers grow. In Glaciology this is called “Mass Balance”, a balance between accumulation and ablation. So both are equally relevant. But again, all this has nothing to do with Philly and Colorado.
    “I sort of half to laugh when AGW skeptics speak about large snowfalls as evidence AGAINST global warming when hundreds of thousands of years of ice core data tell us the exact opposite.”
    Read the story again. The point is that in Colorado and the Northeast the snow storms are NOT changing in frequency either way, and therefore cannot be used as evidence that AGW is occurring. Unless, of course, one subscribes to the very robust AGW hypothesis in which an increase, decrease, or no change in any and all atmospheric parameters are proof of warming (or cooling?)

  35. starzmom says:
    January 30, 2011 at 6:42 pm
    “Dr. Keen neglected to mention that the NESIS scale includes a population component. That inevitably weights recent Northeastern storms more heavily than past Northeastern storms. That is like saying hurricanes are more destructive today than 50 years ago. Of course! More people are in the way. So how bad are the storms in absolute terms?”
    Admittedly this is a bit unclear in the NOAA article about the NESIS scale, but my reading of it is that they weight the spot snowfalls by the population distribution in the 2000 census for all storms, and divide by the total population of the region in 2000. So population growth does not skew the NESIS index, but a 10 inch snow in center city Philadelphia counts more than a 10-inch snow in the south Jersey pine barrens.

  36. I like for my measures of storm severity to depend only on the storm characteristics (and not, e.g., on population). Could you imagine if we pulled the same tactic to measure hurricane strength? Bunk NESIS. Gimme snow volume.

  37. Taxpayer says:
    Now I live in the Front Range of the Rockies, and I LOVE the 300 days/year of sunshine and the quickly-melting snow. I’m grateful when the mountains get lots of snow but equally grateful that the snow stays there
    So you have 300 days per annum clear blue skies and starry nights? Can this be true? Where exactly is this? and which months are the dry and which months are the wet months?
    I am asking this for a reason. I am looking for dry places to do some research. I hope you have a weather station in the neighborhood?
    http://www.letterdash.com/HenryP/assessment-of-global-warming-and-global-warming-caused-by-greenhouse-forcings-in-pretoria-south-africa

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