How rare are deadly winter storms like the one that just hit Buffalo?

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How rare are deadly winter storms like the one that just hit Buffalo?

A winter storm has left Buffalo and the surrounding region in western New York staggering, with at least 30 people dead and rescue and cleanup operations still ongoing on Tuesday. People were found stranded in cars, in massive snowbanks and in homes that have lacked power and heat for days now.

The storm was part of a winter weather system that swept across much of the United States, bringing freezing temperatures even to southern regions unaccustomed to them. With New York officials expecting fatalities to rise and additional snow on the way, it seems likely that this event could crack the list of billion-dollar weather disasters, joining at least 15 others in the country this year alone that collectively killed more than 340 people.

Overall, such disasters have increased dramatically in recent years. Between 1980 and 2021, the U.S. averaged about eight billion-dollar events per year, at a cost of $53.4 billion. But over the last five years alone, that has shot up to almost 18 events per year, at the staggering average cost of $157 billion.

Winter storms, though, are less likely than other natural disasters — like hurricanes or tornado outbreaks — to make the list. On average, less than one winter storm or freeze per year has cracked the billion-dollar threshold since 1980, with no obvious increasing trend in recent years.

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Interestingly though, parts of the U.S. that are less accustomed to traditional winter impacts are more likely to experience sky-high costs when ice, snow and extreme cold do rear their heads.

For example, the deep freeze that descended across much of the country in early 2021 caused massive disruption in Texas, where millions were left without power and more than 200 people died. Only one winter storm has been anywhere near as costly in recent history: the 1993 “Storm of the Century,” which blanketed virtually the entire East Coast.

There is some indication that such events could be made more likely by the changing climate. The polar vortex, a band of strong winds high over the Arctic that encloses a mass of extremely cold air, occasionally breaks through its far northern bounds and spreads to the south — and some studies suggest that warming will make that more likely. For example, one found that low sea ice extent over the Barents Sea north of Norway and Russia can have a cascading atmospheric effect leading the polar vortex to leak down across North America.

“So the idea would be that even though you have an overall warming trend, you might see an increase in the severity of individual winter weather events in some locations,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Amy Butler has explained.

In Buffalo, a city generally well acquainted with severe winter weather, the sheer scale and ferocity of the storm has combined to make it as deadly an event as the region has seen in recent memory. Climate change is also making precipitation events in general stronger, with a warmer atmosphere capable of holding more moisture, so extreme blizzards — especially around the Great Lakes where “lake effect” snow was already an issue — will likely get more and more common in the coming years.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Anna Deen
    Anna Deen

    Data Visualization Reporter

    Anna Deen is a data visualization reporter at Grid.

  • Dave Levitan
    Dave Levitan

    Climate Reporter

    Dave Levitan is a climate reporter for Grid where he focuses on interconnected stories about climate and science, and politics shaping action around both.