SDSU Extension climate specialists were part of a multi-state collaborative effort to research whether or not early-season blizzards are linked to human-caused climate change.

This research was motivated by October 2013's blizzard, explains Laura Edwards, SDSU Extension climate field specialist. "The blizzard will forever be remembered as the devastating natural disaster which caused extraordinary losses to western South Dakota's agricultural industry," Edwards said, referencing the estimated 45,000 animals which perished in the storm, including; cattle, sheep, horses and bison.

Edwards worked with a team to design a study which would determine if any link can be made between this, early-season blizzard and human-caused climate change.

The team used climate computer models and historical climate data to look at pre-industrial era climate and compare it to modern day conditions. "This helped us determine if there were any changes in frequency of extreme precipitation events in the early fall season," Edwards said.

Along with Edwards, the team included; Dennis Todey, South Dakota state climatologist and SDSU Extension climate specialist; Matthew Bunkers, science and operations officer with the National Weather Service in Rapid City; University of Idaho, Department of Geography's John Abatzoglou, associate professor, and Lauren Parker, graduate student.

Findings 

Based on their research, the team discovered that a changing climate has not impacted the likelihood of similar events. In fact, Edwards said that some models actually showed that the probability of extreme early-season storms is decreasing, not increasing.

"The October 2013 blizzard in western South Dakota was indeed, just by chance," Edwards said. "It could not, definitively, be tied to human-induced climate change."

Edwards added that this data is consistent with other research in the Plains region, which show trends toward increased water vapor in the atmosphere, but no statistically significant increase in extreme precipitation events in the fall season.

The group released their findings this fall in a 100-page report, “Explaining Extreme Events of 2013 from a Climate Perspective.”