By Dan Ross, Education Associate at Great Swamp Watershed Association
Ah spring time, the birds are chirping, crocuses and snowdrops are peeking their heads out of the still semi-frozen ground, and robins are hopping along patches of exposed grass nudging aside leaves in search of worms. Or at least that’s the type of idyllic scene we are accustomed to witnessing when we glance out our windows this time of year. But this year, that has certainly not been the case.
In the past three weeks alone, we have experienced four separate Nor’easters, each dumping several inches of snow on our wishful hopes of getting back outside to our gardens and other outdoor pursuits. March is well known to be temperamental when it comes to weather, and this year is no exception, but doesn’t this seem a bit much? On average the past few weeks have been much colder than usual for this time of year due to a warming arctic and large swings in the Jetstream. By now we have all heard about polar vortexes and bomb cyclones, but what does it all mean?
Changing pressure systems have allowed undulating waves of cold artic air to drop down over the northeast with increasing regularity, and to remain in place for longer. In addition to this weather phenomena, a greater volume of water vapor is also present in the atmosphere due to the time of year. As you may recall from grade school science class, the warmer air this time of year is capable of holding more moisture than the colder denser air of winter! This is the process behind why spring rains tend to really drench the landscape in March and April. But having all this excess moisture in the air can really wreak havoc when it collides with these colder than average arctic fronts. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) “In the U.S. on average, one inch of rain, given favorable conditions, will yield up to thirteen inches of snow!”
It is little surprise that when these factors combine, we get some particularly massive storms. The name Nor’easter is derived from the fact that these continuously strong northeasterly winds blow in from the ocean in advance of the storm along the coastal areas of our Northeast corridor. According to NOAA, what makes these storms systems so strong is the “warm and moist air from the Atlantic that feeds the storm, causing it to grow explosively.” Warmer ocean temperatures this time of year serve to further exacerbate this situation.
Perhaps you have heard a neighbor wish for some global warming to melt away all of the snow from his sidewalk, or complain that the freaky weather we have been experiencing disproves the science behind climate change. But climate and the weather are not exactly the same thing. While it is true that volatile, unpredictable weather happens all the time, climate changes happen slowly over longer periods of time. According to our State Climatologist, David Robinson, “an easy way to remember the difference is to think of the weather as your current mood, and the climate as more of your personality.” One thing is for sure, as the climate changes over time we can be sure to experience more frequent storms of this nature, and more intense storms as well.
Regardless of the cause of these crippling storms, the result (of which as we are all too familiar) is downed trees and powerlines, road closures, and a general upset of our daily lives. Instead of breaking out the rototiller to begin planning our spring gardens, we are forced instead to fuel up the snow blower and get our generators ready. Rather than hosing mud off our sidewalks and porch steps, we are instead applying even more rock salt to make walkways safe. All of which, will of course find its way into our creeks and streams when the snow eventually melts over the coming weeks, increasing their overall salinity.
Of course, none of this is suggest that these winter storms, which are the sole focus of our attention right now, won’t melt away into the recesses of our memory just as quickly as they have taken hold. This is still New Jersey after all, and as the colloquial saying goes “if you don’t like the weather here, just wait a day or two!” Spring conditions are surely right around the corner, and the daffodils and pastel colored tulips will be emerging in due time. But for now, we are forced to dig out from yet another onslaught of winter carnage. I don’t know about you, but I will surely be glad to trade in my snow shovel for an umbrella and galoshes! [Note: this article was written on March 21, 2018, on the day of the fourth Nor’easter.]