Warmer Winters and Heavy Snowfall: Brought to You by Global Warming

Reader Contribution by Beth Beavers

When I talk to my friends and family about the importance of taking care of our planet, especially to help curb global warming, the nonbelievers usually fire back “Why are we getting such heavy snow if we’re in a climate crisis?” or my favorite “If the planet is warming, why is it so cold?”

In a new report from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), experts from around the country explain that global warming isn’t going to destroy winter overnight and that some of the strange weather we are experiencing is one of the effects of climate change. The report, which was authored by NWF’s climate scientist Amanda Staudt, emphasizes the weather is highly variable year-by-year. But looking at long-term trends, global warming is definitely real and having detrimental effects.

The report explains winter is becoming shorter and warmer. David Robinson, climatologist and professor of geography at Rutgers University, says the first freeze is happening later, and spring is coming almost two weeks earlier. Winter weather is greatly affected by even a few degrees difference. In areas where it still remains freezing, the increase in temperature is causing bigger snowstorms because warmer air can hold more moisture. In places where it is not below freezing, more rain and the potential for flooding exist.

John Magnuson, professor emeritus of zoology and director emeritus of the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, stressed the importance of not being misled by inter-annual weather compared to long-term trends. Magnuson studies limnology, the study of inland waters, and warned about the significant variability in duration of ice cover. Typically, lakes freeze in the winter but in years where the duration of ice cover is shorter some aren’t freezing completely. Others are not freezing over at all. The unfrozen water is available for evaporation and can cause large lake-effect snowfalls.

The variable weather makes budgeting for cities and states more difficult. Joe Drobot, scientific program manager for the Weather Systems and Assessment Program at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Research Applications Laboratory, says the increase in variability can complicate city and state budget planning. Snow and ice removal accounts for about $12 billion a year, so after a year of less than average snow fall, cuts to snow and ice removal seem to make sense. When winter weather inevitably hits, cities and states have a harder time cleaning it up.

Climate change is the largest threat to wildlife, according to Staudt. Pests that usually cannot survive due to winter conditions are surviving and wreaking havoc on ecosystems. Pine bark beetles have destroyed millions of acres of pine forest throughout the northwest and Canada, and ticks are spreading and finding new homes in places they where they previously couldn’t survive. Birds are becoming accustomed to warmer conditions and are delaying migration or not traveling as far, which can lead to frost bite or death when the freezes come.

Crops and plants are in danger, too. Because spring conditions are coming earlier, many plants and trees are blooming earlier. But late freezes or drops in temperature can destroy the crops. Many fruit and nut crops need a “winter chill” to resume growth, but these chill periods are becoming shorter (thanks to global warming) which means a smaller yield from these crops.

The NWF offers two solutions to the problems posed by global warming. They call for aggressive policy reform: to reduce coal, oil and gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. They also want communities and winter-dependant industries to prepare and plan for the future effects.

Read the National Wildlife Federation’s full climate change report.