Trend and Return Level of Extreme Snow Events in New York City

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A major winter storm brought up to 42 inches of snow in parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states for January 22–24, 2016. The blizzard of January 2016 impacted about 102.8 million people, claiming at least 55 lives and $500 million to $3 billion in economic losses. This article studies two important aspects of extreme snowfall events: 1. trends in annual maxima and threshold exceedances and 2. return levels for extreme snowfall. Applying extreme value methods to the extreme snow data in the New York City area, we quantify linear trends in extreme snowfall and assess how severe the 2016 blizzard is in terms of return levels. To find a more realistic standard error for the extreme value methods, we extend Smith’s method to adapt to both spatial and temporal correlations in the snow data. Our results show increasing, but insignificant trends in the annual maximum snowfall series. However, we find that the 87.5th percentile snowfall has significantly increased by 0.564 inches per decade, suggesting that, while the maximum snowfall is not significantly increasing, there have been increases in the snowfall among the larger storms. We also find that the 2016 blizzard is indeed an extreme snow event equivalent to about a 40-year return level in the New York City area. The extreme value methods used in this study are thoroughly illustrated for general readers. Data and modularized programming codes are to be available online to aid practitioners in using extreme value methods in applications.