Fading Winters, Hotter Summers Make the Northeast America’s Fastest Warming Region

Connecticut’s average temperature has risen 2 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century, double the average for the Lower 48 states.

Jun 27, 2020
Connecticut is one of the fastest-warming states in the contiguous United States. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Connecticut is one of the fastest-warming states in the contiguous United States. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As a kid growing up in Watertown, Connecticut, Daniel Esty would create his own backyard ice skating rink and flood it with a garden hose. Now, when Esty tries to create an ice rink with his own children in their backyard in nearby Cheshire, the water rarely freezes. 

Only a few days in recent winters have been cold enough to produce ice adequate for skating, said Esty, a Yale University environmental law professor. Having lived in Connecticut his whole life, he has witnessed the growing impact of global warming in the Northeast.  

"I think all of us who've been living in New England see changes that suggest that we're in a warming cycle, and that of course, is worrisome," said Esty, who served as commissioner of the state's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection from 2011 to 2014. 

 

Connecticut is one of the fastest-warming states, in the fastest warming region, in the contiguous United States. An analysis last year by The Washington Post found that neighboring Rhode Island was the first state among the lower 48 whose average annual temperature had warmed more than 2 degrees Celsius since 1895. New Jersey was second, the Post found, followed by Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts. 

The Post analysis also found that the New York City area, including Long Island and suburban counties in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, was among about half a dozen hot spots nationally where warming has already exceeded 2 degrees. The others are the greater Los Angeles area, the high desert in Oregon, the Western Rocky Mountains, an area from Montana to Minnesota along the Canadian border and the Northeast Shore of Lake Michigan.

Climate scientists don't fully understand why Connecticut and the other Northeast states have warmed so dramatically, but they offer an array of explanations, from warm winters that produce less snow and ice (and thus reflect less heat back into space) to warming ocean temperatures and  changes in both the jet stream and the Gulf Stream. 

Two degrees Celsius serves as a prominent threshold for international leaders, who in the 2015 Paris Agreement committed to "holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius...,recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change." 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that even a 1.5 degree increase in the global average temperature will result in the death of coral reefs, severe droughts, dangerous heat waves and massive sea level rise.

The perilous warming trend in the Northeast continued this spring, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information's climate report for May, which found warmer than normal temperatures for all 12 Northeastern states. Spring temperatures were 0.1 degrees Celsius above normal in Connecticut, the report said. The state's nearly 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise since 1895 is double the average for the Lower 48 states. 

Across the planet, temperatures have warmed 1 degree Celsius since the late 19th century. But globally, warming has been far from uniform. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and Alaska is the fastest warming state in the U.S. 

Across the country, the Post found that 71 of 3,107 counties have already surpassed 2 degrees Celsius of warming. Fairfield County and much of southwestern Connecticut are among that group. 

New York, New Jersey and New England are not typically associated with the dramatic signs of a warming planet, such as raging wildfires or catastrophic flooding. But the Northeast is warming faster than the rest of the contiguous U.S. 

"If you look at the spatial pattern of warming, then what you find is that you see much higher warming in the coastal areas in New England," said Ambarish Karmalkar, a postdoctoral fellow with the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center. 

The climate patterns Connecticut exhibits are similar to the rest of the Northeastern states. If current trends continue, by 2035, the average temperature of the entire Northeast region will have risen 2 degrees Celsius since the pre-industrial era, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment

This would be the largest temperature rise in the contiguous U.S. and would occur 20 years before the global average is predicted to achieve the same amount of warming, the climate assessment reported. And once the global average temperature officially rises 2 degrees, said Anji Seth, a climate scientist and professor at the University of Connecticut, higher latitudes near the North Pole will have warmed by 4 or 5 degrees. 

Warmer Winters, with Less Snow and More Rain

Hotter winters. Lack of snow. Changing jet stream patterns. Warming Waters. All are phenomena that contribute to this rapid atmospheric temperature growth in Connecticut. 

In Connecticut and nearby states, higher yearly averages have resulted from the warming of both the hottest and coldest temperatures, Seth said. Winters are warming more rapidly than other seasons, at 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit per decade. And balmy summer days are becoming even hotter. Days with temperatures above 77 degrees Fahrenheit have become more frequent, as have tropical nights, which are those above 68 degrees Fahrenheit. 

One assessment projects that average summer and winter temperatures in Connecticut will increase 2.8 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels within the next 60 years. 

If that happens, the summer climate in Connecticut by the end of the century will be the same as it is in present-day South Carolina. Temperatures in Hartford would exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit for 28 days a year.

Seth said warmer winters in mid-latitude regions produce less frozen precipitation, generating a feedback cycle that increases surface warming. "When there's more snow and ice, those surfaces are reflective," she said. "They're going to reflect sunlight back to space and reduce the temperature of the surface. But when the snow and ice is not there, then those surfaces will absorb more sunlight and the temperature will increase."

Karmalkar said the increase in rain during the winter may contribute to the melting snow pattern. He said the amount of winter precipitation is projected to rise because warmer air contains more moisture in the atmosphere. However, this precipitation will likely take the form of rain rather than snow because of warming temperatures.

The region's climate is also affected by the jet stream, a band of strong winds in the upper atmosphere that is becoming increasingly unstable, producing extremely hot and cold temperatures across the Northeast. 

Andrew Pershing, chief science officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, said blocking events within the jet stream, when waves in the wind get stuck in place, are an increasing pattern over the Northeast. Whenever a dip is west of Western New England, the region receives a lot of southerly, warm air. "And it can get stuck for days and days and days," he said. "And that's when we get really warm conditions on land and in the ocean."

The coast of New England, meanwhile, has received less cold water from the Canadian shelf and more warm water from the Gulf Stream, a giant warm current from the Gulf of Mexico that moves up the East Coast, Pershing said. 

Long Island Sound, sheltered from winds and ocean currents, is warming even more rapidly, providing less and less relief in the form of cooling breezes to inland residents. 

Sea Level Rise, Storm Surge and Drought

The higher temperatures, warming oceans and increase in extreme weather events, all linked to climate change, will produce a daunting array of impacts in Connecticut, particularly along its coastline, which will likely experience sea level rise of more than 1 meter (3.3 feet) by 2100, according to a University of Massachusetts report.

Gary Yohe, economics and environmental studies professor at Wesleyan University, said stronger storms will drive more Long Island Sound water, compounding rising sea levels and increased rainfall to make Connecticut residents increasingly vulnerable to storm surges, flooding and the resulting economic damage. 

Yohe said the current recovery methods for these extreme events are not economically  sustainable. Governments and the private sector spend money cleaning up after storms, which they could otherwise invest in renewable energy and other technologies that would reduce the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, he said.

"You have a cost that adds up year after year," he said. 

Beyond the coastline, rising heat levels will greatly disrupt farming, Yohe said. Droughts have become more prominent along the East Coast, which affect Connecticut crops. Warming will also decrease water availability during the summer due to increased evaporation from soils and transpiration from plants, according to a 2019 Connecticut Climate Assessment. Potential water deficits during summer droughts are projected to become more severe throughout the century, the report says.  

Extreme heat stress also poses a threat to young children, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, like asthma, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment. "There are concerns that we're going to see changes in disease vectors as a result of more warming and other climate change effects," said Esty, the Yale law professor.  "So, more risk of things like West Nile virus or Lyme disease." 

Flattening the Emissions Curve

Equally difficult for government officials, policy makers and climate activists in Connecticut is the realization that the state, despite its commitment to renewable energy, is largely powerless to slow the warming, even as the region heats more than the nation as a whole.

"Even if we stopped our emissions completely, we will still be warming because of what's happening all across the globe," said Karmalkar, the University of Massachusetts' climate scientist. 

Seth, at the University of Connecticut, said that the state has actually been decreasing emissions, but with little effect, showing that widespread shifts in global emissions are required to reverse warming in all areas of the globe. Connecticut and most Northeast states have been working to reduce emissions since the early 2000s, she said.

To stop regional warming, she said, the federal government must treat climate change like the Covid-19 pandemic, but on a different time scale. We must flatten and bend the curve of greenhouse gas emissions in a decade, the same as America endeavored to do temporarily with Covid-19 cases within weeks after the outbreak there, she said.  

"I think there are many people in the state that are putting in a very good effort to try to get things moving in the right direction at the right pace, but it is challenging," she said. "And we have a lot of work to do... in a short amount of time."

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