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Here's why climate change may bring heavier snowstorms to the Berkshires like that nor'easter we just had

A nor'easter hit the Berkshires hard this month. Heavy wet snow caused some people to lose power for days, and well over two feet of snow was reported in some locations.

Climate change may mean increasingly heavy storms in the winters to come.

"It's counterintuitive, and yet borne out by the science and predictions that with a warming climate here in the Northeast, we will actually likely continue to see more intense snowstorms like that," said Elena Traister, professor of Environmental Studies at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.


“Warmer air holds more moisture, and so there's been an increase in the amount of moisture in the atmosphere," said Michael Rawlins, associate director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an associate professor in the Department of Earth, Geographic and Climate Sciences. "So it's no surprise that a cold climate like the northeast U.S. has seen an increase in the heaviest precipitation events and in the heaviest snowfall events."

As Rawlins explained in an article last year: "Think of the atmosphere like a sponge. Air holds about 4% more water vapor for each additional degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature."

The ocean feeds the atmosphere, and a warmer ocean is another factor in intense snowstorms, Rawlins said.

A line showing winter temperature over time in western Massachusetts

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for meteorological winter — December, January and February — in Western Massachusetts shows on average, winters are trending to be warmer. NOAA defines Western Massachusetts as Division 1.

Eventually, Rawlins and Traister said, the heavier snowstorms will become heavier winter rains as temperatures further rise over time.

"Overall, extreme snowfall events are likely to become an increasingly important impact of climate change in the next decades," concludes a 2021 paper published in the journal Nature, "even if they will become rarer, but not necessarily less intense, in the second half of the century."

Winters are warming. Western Massachusetts just had its third-warmest winter on record. Temperatures in the region were 30.6 degrees this winter, a season measured by climatologists as December through February, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Data from 2022 showed that Boston and New York had most of their record-breaking two- and three-day snowfalls in the past three decades, Rawlins wrote in an article last year.

Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore have had a similar trend, The Washington Post reported. New York City may set another snow-related record this year: its current winter may be the least snowy on record with 2.3 inches as of Friday, which is driven by factors like a relatively warm winter, the La Niña weather pattern, and climate change-induced volatility, The New York Times reported.

As for snowfall records in the Berkshires specifically, it's harder to get solid long-term data.

man looks behind him on a tractor in the snow
Gary Poulton uses snowblower in deep snow
Rich Lampron walks through deep snow
Caleb Mitchell shoveling deep snow
Caleb Mitchell and David Bachand dig through deep snow

"Snowfall is the hardest thing [to measure]. There's not many sites that measure snowfall," Steve DiRienzo, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Albany, said.

The most snow over a three-day period recorded in the county was 43.3 inches in Peru in March 1947, according to NWS data DiRienzo cited. The two-day record is 32 inches in Great Barrington measured in 1996.

During the recent storm, someone reported 32 inches of snow in Windsor. That would tie the two-day record, but DiRienzo said NWS staff and other officials have go through a verification process to make it official.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6272.


Greta Jochem, a Report for America Corps member, joined the Eagle in 2021. Previously, she was a reporter at the Daily Hampshire Gazette. She is also a member of the investigations team.

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