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Environment & Energy

How extreme winter storms are connected to climate change and hurting businesses

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Katie Blackley
/
90.5 WESA

The second powerful winter storm of 2022 hit a large swath of the country in early February. It dumped more than a foot of snow in parts of New York and New England, brought a wintry mix of rain, sleet and snow to our region, and frigid conditions all the way to Texas.

The storm impacted all kinds of businesses, like ProSource of Akron, Ohio, which sells wholesale flooring.

“The largest thing for us was our deliveries. People just don’t run a lot of semi-trucks when it’s storming like that,” said store manager John Reinart.

Business at ProSource slowed way down. Deliveries got pushed into the next week, few customers visited the showroom, and employees couldn’t get to work one morning. “This has been crazy,” Reinart said. “I’m turning 30 in April, and I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

At Samuel and Sons in Hermitage, north of Pittsburgh, the early February storm exacerbated problems brought on by the pandemic.

The company supplies metal products used by truck and plane manufacturers and the oil and gas industry. It used to take mere days to get stainless steel products processed for their customers, but since covid, it can take months, according to administrative coordinator Jesscia Rouse.

They’re also down to one truck driver, from five or six, she said.

The day before the latest winter storm hit, Rouse and her co-workers were scrambling, calling and emailing the suppliers and trucking companies they work with, to check on deliveries. “‘Are you running anybody tomorrow or should we expect a delivery from you tomorrow? What happens if we don’t open? Who can we call to let you know right away so you don’t send out a guy,”’ she said.

Can climate change mean lots of snow?

Several cities in the Northeastern US have seen record-setting snow in recent years.

It might seem contradictory to think that “global warming” will create historic snowfalls. But not to Jessica Spaccio, a climatologist with the Northeast Regional Climate Center,  managed by NOAA.

We’re seeing not just even warming. What we’re seeing [is] more extreme events and changes and variability in our weather,” she said.

According to research, when arctic temperatures warm, the pressure system around the North Pole weakens. This changes how the jet stream behaves, Spaccio said. Instead of holding tight around the pole, it loosens.

As that pressure system weakens, that’s when the jet stream can become more wavy, and we see those patterns here,” she explained. “And with more waviness in the jet stream, that’s how we can get those cold temperatures dipping down, like when we see Texas getting snow and freezing temperatures.

In the Northeastern U.S., there’s another factor: the warming Atlantic ocean.

That’s this big heat source and water source,” Spaccio said. “With (the Atlantic Ocean) being warmer, that provides more energy and more moisture available for these storms. So there is more snowfall associated with those.”

Winter storms can mean lost productivity

It’s not clear how costly winter storms will be as the climate changes. Winter storms don’t cause the type of damage as wildfires and hurricanes, according to Adam Kamins director of economic research for Moody’s Analytics.

He gives the example of Hurricane Ida, which hit the Mid-Atlantic region last summer. According to Moody’s, it caused an estimated $17 billion to $24 billion in damages in the region to vehicles, infrastructure and property. Whereas, the highest cost for the most severe snowstorms has been $5 billion to $10 billion.

“So we’re looking, for example, if people can’t get to work for a couple of days if the power goes out and they can’t get their jobs done. What is the daily output associated with a given economy? And for how long is the economy sort of out of commission?” Kamins said. But times have changed, and working from home during the pandemic is reducing those kinds of losses.

“A generation ago, if there was a significant snowstorm, you couldn’t get to the office. You’re not getting much done for a few days. And now, life goes on. Maybe the kids are home and that’s a little bit of a disruptor, but it’s not a game-changer,” Kamins said.

But people who transport steel, sell wholesale carpeting, and work in factories can’t do their work online, and that’s where productivity is lost during snowstorms.

Kamins doesn’t see many businesses like this thinking about climate change in their day-to-day operations, but it’s a top-level concern for other sectors like finance.

“There’s been a marked shift in the last couple of years where risk mitigation around climate change is now really central to their planning,” he said.

Despite the politics around climate change, Kamins said there’s an acceptance within the private sector about the need to prepare for it.

Read more from our partners, The Allegheny Front.

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