So the snowstorm Nemo--even if the dumb name was whipped up by the Weather Channel's marketing division, that's what everyone's calling it right?--just got done dousing the East Coast in snow. The storm left 700,000 people without power, 15 dead, and untold billions of dollars in damage. And it all went down only a week or so after Congress finally got around to approving the funds to pay for the cleanup of the last once-in-a-decade mega storm.
And now the question is, did global warming make this one nastier, too? Experts were in general agreement that climate change ripened conditions for Sandy--higher sea levels, warmer ocean waters, more energy in the storm system--the hurricane was the product of a frankenstorm factory that humans have at least heavily modified. But Nemo, well, Nemo's a different story. Climatologists say that there's evidence that global warming probably made Nemo somewhat stronger and snowier.
Kenneth Trenberth, the senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told the Cape Cod Times that "Global warming doesn't cause these storms, but it does add to their intensity. Sea temperature is higher, and there is more moisture over the ocean as a result, waiting to be sucked up by the storm."
Additionally, big snowstorms have to be just the right temperature--if they're too cold, they don't hold enough moisture. Warmer-than-average temperatures can therefore actually make a storm snowier. At Grist, Philip Bump points us to the Weather Underground's Christopher Burt, who explains Nemo's extraordinary impact:
The storm was certainly among the top five to affect Southern New England and Maine and for some localities, the worst winter storm on record (going back 300 years since European inhabitants began keeping track of such things). …
It can probably be said that winter storm Nemo was the 2nd most intense winter storm event for Long Island, Connecticut, eastern Massachusetts, and perhaps Rhode Island. For Long Island and Connecticut the Blizzard of 1888 remains unparalleled whereas for Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts the Blizzard of 1978 remains the top event. For southeastern Maine it would appear that Nemo has been the most extreme snowstorm on record. …
I might add that it is a bit unsettling that two of the most significant storms in the past 300 years to strike the northeastern quadrant of the U.S. have occurred within just four months from one another.
Which also suggests that climate change has "loaded the dice" in such a way that nasty extreme weather events like this will occur more frequently. Climatologist Michael Mann, meanwhile, described our situation in the Huffington Post: "If you take the basketball court and raise it a foot, you're going to see more slam-dunks," Mann said. "Not every dunk is due to raising the floor, but you'll start seeing them happen more often then they ought to." Finally, physicist and climate blogger Joe Romm has a roundup of compelling reasons, including increases in average precipitation and moisture in the air, that climate change helped Nemo get nastier.
So yeah. We won't know with how heavy a hand until further scientific analysis can be completed, but it seems likely that manmade global warming helped steer the Northeast into an epic snowdrift named Nemo. Which reminds me. If blanketing the East Coast in snow and leaving hundreds of thousands shivering in the dark without power isn't enough to make you hate climate change, then maybe this will: it's currently killing that other Nemo that pop culture is still fixated on.
Orange clownfish, the species that served as a model for the hero from the Pixar film Finding Nemo, are currently going deaf because of global warming. The oceans, like the atmosphere, are absorbing more carbon dioxide than they can handle, leading to a process called ocean acidification. The Independent explains that
researchers found that baby orange clownfish … lost their ability to detect the underwater noises made by potential predators when carbon dioxide pumped into their tanks reached certain concentrations. According to the results of the experiments, Nemo and marine fish like him could begin to go deaf by the middle of this century when the ocean acidity is expected to have reached a threshold that starts to interfere with the ability of a fish's tiny "earbones" to pick up vibrations in the water caused by nearby predators.
So maybe that's what last weekend's Nemo was really all about--global warming was just trying to make up for something it's about to kill off.