Winter weather whiplash: impacts of meteorological events misaligned with natural and human systems in seasonally snow-covered regions

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Nov 21, 2019
Nora Casson, Alix Contosta, Elizabeth Burakowski, John Campbell, Irena Creed, Mindy Crandall, Catherine Eimers, Sarah Garlick, David Lutz, M.Q. Morison, Anita Morzillo, and S.J. Nelson



“Weather whiplash” is a colloquial phrase for describing an extreme event that includes shifts between two opposing weather conditions. Prior media coverage and research on these types of extremes have largely ignored winter weather events. However, rapid swings in winter weather can result in crossing from frozen to unfrozen conditions, or vice versa, thus, the potential impact of these types of events on coupled human and natural systems may be large. Given rapidly changing winter conditions in seasonally snow-covered regions, there is a pressing need for a deeper understanding of such events and the extent of their impacts to minimize their risks. Here we introduce the concept of winter weather whiplash, defined as a class of extreme event in which a collision of unexpected conditions produces a forceful, rapid, back-and-forth change in winter weather that induces an outsized impact on coupled human and natural systems. Using a series of case studies, we demonstrate that the effects of winter weather whiplash events depend on the natural and human context in which they occur, and discuss how these events may result in the restructuring of social and ecological systems. We use the long-term hydrometeorological record at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, USA to demonstrate quantitative methods for delineating winter weather whiplash events and their biophysical impacts. Ultimately, we argue that robust conceptual and quantitative frameworks for understanding winter weather whiplash events will contribute to the ways in which we mitigate and adapt to winter climate change in vulnerable regions.


Article published in Earth's Future. 


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