Will climate change lead to more intense weather events?

While California continues to be inundated by storms and millions of residents remain under flood watches, western New York is still recovering from last month’s historic blizzard that dumped more than four feet of snow on Buffalo. Laura Barrón-López examines the frequency of extreme winter weather and the debate about their potential links to climate change.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    California continues to be inundated by storms and millions of residents remain under flood watch. Western New York is still recovering from last month's historic blizzard that dumped more than four feet of snow on Buffalo.

    Laura Barrón-López is back and examines the frequency of extreme winter weather and the debate about its potential links to climate change.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Longtime Buffalo residents had never seen a winter storm quite like this one.

    Morris Singer III says, for much of the city's Christmas week blizzard, he was doing wellness checks as part of a volunteer group in his East Buffalo neighborhood. He shot this video in near-whiteout conditions.

    And you have lived in Buffalo your whole life, right? I mean, have you ever seen a storm like that?

  • Morris Singer III, Buffalo Resident:

    Not like that, especially with the wind. The wind just made it just extra worse than what it was.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Morris later found out that his own father was among the more than 40 residents killed in and around Buffalo as a result of the blizzard; 65-year-old Morris Singer Jr., a man known for his flashy suits, died trying to walk to a grocery store as the storm hit. His body was later found in a snowbank.

  • Morris Singer III:

    He was so, like, flamboyant and larger than life, wanted to be seen. So his personality was the same.

    So, they told me he was going to the store. And, unfortunately, the store is only two blocks over, and he didn't make it.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    The blizzard conditions, coupled with 70 mile-per-hour winds, were a catastrophic combination.

    Climatologist Adam Smith calculates the financial costs of weather-related disasters for NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information.

  • Adam Smith, NOAA Climatologist:

    And, unfortunately, the late December '22 winter storm cold wave was in some parts of The country a storm of a lifetime, just the hurricane-force winds around Buffalo and just the — just the intense snow squalls. It was — it was quite remarkable.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Smith says the blizzard was just one of 18 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in the United States last year. And he believes it could end up being the costliest winter weather event in roughly two years, when nearly 250 people died in Texas.

  • Adam Smith:

    And so, in 2021, February was the most costly winter storm cold wave on record, which we remember the Texas energy grid froze. Many other states experienced a lot of damage from just the cold. It was a over $20 billion event.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    While it's increasingly clear that other severe types of weather, like the recent flooding in California, droughts and longer wildfire seasons, all can be linked to global warming, the fingerprints of manmade climate change on extreme winter weather is less obvious.

    That debate often centers around the Arctic, a region warming nearly four times faster than the rest of the world.

    Judah Cohen, Verisk Atmospheric and Environmental Research: The biggest changes we're seeing with climate change and are happening in the Arctic. I think there's a connection.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Climate scientist Dr. Judah Cohen studies the links between Arctic warming and disruptions to the polar vortex, the swirling winds above the North Pole.

  • Judah Cohen:

    Our argument is that changes in the Arctic are leading to more of these disruptions in the polar vortex, which increases our risk of severe winter weather.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    For most Americans, winters are getting both shorter and warmer across much of the U.S. Average winter temperatures have risen by at least two degrees since the 1970s. But Judah Cohen says something else is happening.

  • Judah Cohen:

    What people are actually experiencing is a warmer, shorter winter punctuated by more of these severe winter weather events. Cohen's research is not fully agreed upon among scientists.

    Some argue that cold weather, even when severe, could simply be a natural deviation from a general warming trend. What's clear, the increasing frequency of extreme weather means more Americans will likely be impacted going forward.

    And some groups will be hit much harder than others, says Adam Smith.

  • Adam Smith:

    Most everyone is vulnerable to some extreme or combination of extremes.

    And, certainly, people who have highest socioeconomic vulnerability to these different extremes often might not have a vehicle to evacuate. They might not have a home insurance policy to help recover from damages. So they might not have the social fabric to help them rebound after these extremes.

    Henry Louis Taylor Jr., University of Buffalo: There's an old adage in the African American community that says, when white people get a cold, Black people get pneumonia.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Urban studies Professor Henry Louis Taylor says that Buffalo's mostly Black East Side was especially vulnerable to this blizzard. Many residents there live in older homes and often rely on walking.

  • Henry Louis Taylor Jr.:

    Already, we know that Blacks are representing about 50 percent or more of the fatalities in a region where they represent only about 14 percent of the population.

    This was something you had never seen before. The messaging was never there. It was never there that walking could kill you.

    Byron Brown, Mayor of Buffalo, New York: A driving ban remains in effect.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    While the city of Buffalo did institute both a driving ban and urged residents to stay home during the blizzard, Morris Singer III says it was a message that never reached his father.

  • Morris Singer III:

    This is probably the worst storm that any of us have experienced in our lifetime. And we just didn't know any better, because people were still going out, like my father, still thinking that, hey, this is all right. I can walk to the store. I can make it, that this isn't going to kill me.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Does that make you angry with the city of Buffalo for how they handled the storm?

  • Morris Singer III:

    I'm a little frustrated, because I still think it's a lack of accountability with 43 people dying.

  • Laura Barrón-López:

    Like many in Buffalo, Singer says he hopes last month's blizzard will be a wakeup call for the city as it prepares for future extreme storms.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Laura Barrón-López.

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