EarthTalk: Winter’s future looks warmer

Some places were colder and got more snow last winter, but that’s in line with today’s models for a warmer climate.

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    Vicki Cerrud, right, and her daughter Oriana, 10, of Manhattan, sun themselves at the marina by the New York's World Financial Center, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2007.
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Q: How is it said that we are “losing winter” because of climate change? It didn’t seem so last winter, when it even snowed in places for the very first time.
Peter Kim, Duxbury, Mass.

A: The effects of global warming manifest themselves differently in different locations, and winter is no doubt getting shorter and warmer across New England, the Canadian Maritimes, and northern Europe.

In New England, average winter temperatures have increased 4.4 degrees F. since 1970. The years 2006 and 1998 were the first and second warmest years on record in the United States since we started counting, with the last eight five-year periods the warmest in history. According to the National Climatic Data Center, that warming has been accelerating over the last three decades, from just over 1/10th of one degree F. per decade to almost one-third of a degree now.

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By 2100, temperatures in the North­east are predicted to have risen by eight to 12 degrees F., with the number of snow days half of what we have now. A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists on the effects of global warming in the Northeast concluded that, under some scenarios, “Only western Maine is projected to retain a reliable ski season by the end of the century, and only northern New Hampshire would support a snowmobiling season longer than two months.”

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment of 2004 reported that Arctic temperatures are rising at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the world (up to 14 degrees F. in the next 100 years), reducing sea ice and melting frozen soils. The scale of this climatic shift may completely change the culture of the Arctic.

Global warming impacts are far from monolithic: Some parts of the planet are heating up and others are experiencing colder than average temperatures and record snowfalls, just as climate models predict. But the overall trend is clear: It’s getting warmer, and winter is losing its intensity and duration. “

Winter’s retreat may be sad for children intent on sledding, but it also augurs badly for the economy, especially for businesses reliant on snow. New England’s ski industry has experienced sharp declines in the number of days their lifts operate. Snowmaking machines, originally intended to just pick up any slack left by Mother Nature, now operate throughout the winter.

Meanwhile, snowmobile manufacturers report a 50 percent drop in sales over the last decade, and New England’s maple syrup industry has been hard hit. Tom McCrumm of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association says there may no longer be a maple sugar industry in New England by 2100.

Got an environmental question? Write: EarthTalk, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or: earthtalk@emagazine.com

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