Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

In Westchester County, New York, trees sway with the high winds as rain drowned multiple areas in Southern New York in April.

August 27, 2020

Ithaca’s Severe Thunderstorms Come as Devastating Weather Afflicts the Nation

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On Sunday and Thursday afternoon, Ithaca community members witnessed the rapid onset of dangerous winds and precipitation, prompting University-wide alerts through Cornell’s emergency management system. The CornellALERT messages drew concern from many students, as they were notified of the impending weather conditions and advised to take immediate shelter.

Kasper Dworzanczyk, a second-year law student, was in a Zoom meeting when he noticed the sky suddenly turn dark outside his apartment — a stark contrast to the mild conditions earlier in the day.

“I was doing an orientation for one of my student organizations, and they were talking about having to possibly postpone or delay the program and the orientation because of this sudden weather alert,” Dworzanczyk said.

However, Dworzanczyk said the frightening conditions left as quickly as they came, lasting no more than half an hour.

Another severe thunderstorm hit Ithaca mid-Thursday afternoon, as Cornellians received another alert warning about lightning, 70 m.p.h. wind gusts and hail that cleared approximately 35 minutes later.

According to Prof. Arthur DeGaetano, earth and atmospheric sciences, this kind of weather is typical, and “nothing spectacular, meteorologically.”

DeGaetano said that thunderstorms, such as the ones on Sunday and Thursday, are caused by hot and humid air rising into the atmosphere. Conditions quickly dissipated because as rain began to fall, it dragged the rising air back downwards, counteracting the updraft needed to fuel the thunderstorm’s progression.

Prof. Mark Wysocki, earth and atmospheric sciences, also noted that fast moving winds in the upper atmosphere — called a jet stream — can cause storms to die out as they are blown out of the area.

Ithaca’s harsh thunderstorms come at a time when much of the nation is bracing for impact against a slew of dangerous weather events — many of which have increased in intensity at the hands of climate change.

Worsening hurricanes affecting the East and Gulf Coasts are one such weather pattern induced by climate change. Hurricane Laura, one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the United States, brought physical destruction and the loss of life upon its landfall Thursday in Texas and Louisiana.

Escalating sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic and near the equator are causing higher intensity hurricanes than in years prior, according to Wysocki. Global sea levels, which have risen by 8 to 12 inches since the 1970s, have also allowed hurricanes to bring on more severe flooding with storm surges moving further inland, Wysocki added.

DeGaetano said that Ithaca might expect to see more frequent thunderstorms in the near future as rising air temperatures continue to fuel severe weather conditions.

“The air can hold more water vapor when it’s warm,” DeGaetano said. “When the oceans are warm they can evaporate more water vapor, so that’s the thing that fuels these heavier, extreme, rainstorm events … we would expect to see more intense rainstorms like occurred on Sunday.”

However, Wysocki specified that individual weather events, such as Ithaca’s thunderstorms, are not necessarily indicators of climate change. Climate researchers investigate the cumulative effect of thunderstorm patterns across the Northeast, and search for trends over a 10-year period to determine whether individual events play a part in larger changes in climate.

While Ithaca’s recent severe thunderstorms are not directly related to climate change-induced weather patterns, they draw further attention to the devastating impact of weather events — such as the wildfires burning across California — that actually do have roots in global warming.

Wysocki explained that the very little rainfall in California’s eight-year long drought works in conjunction with rising temperatures to cause conditions where small sparks can lead to wildfires.

“When you start getting into that long of a time period, you start to see how things get really intense with the lack of water, the drying out of agriculture, the grass, the trees and so forth. And now it’s just basically on fire,” Wysocki said.

These hurricanes, heavy rainfall events, wildfires and droughts — though seemingly disparate — are tied together by the string of shifting climate patterns, according to DeGaetano.

Wysocki said that increasing global temperatures will cause more frequent weather extremes across the U.S. and around the world, continuing to inflict a toll on human life and pressuring humans to adapt.

Although the climate crisis is a looming threat, Cornell researchers are working to mitigate its effects. According to Wysocki, researchers are developing energy solutions, infrastructure designed to handle extreme weather and improved climate models in an effort to prepare humans for future climate disasters.

“As the climate continues to warm — and we expect it to continue to warm for the foreseeable future — we’re going to see more of these events,” DeGaetano said. “And if we want to adapt to them, we have to make sure we’re designing infrastructure that can handle [them].”