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Don Paul: Winter isn't going away, but it sure is shrinking

Don Paul

We had a subzero blast and the first blizzard of 2019 just a couple of weeks ago. We had our coldest month ever, somewhat recently, in February 2015. Even with ongoing mean global warming, winter is not going away anytime soon.

As I’ve already written, the warming Arctic (which is the fastest-warming region on the planet, exactly as predicted decades ago) actually can contribute to more frequent impacts from lobes of a weakened polar vortex.

After the Jan. 30 blitz, we were back up to 59 degrees on Feb. 4, 60 degrees on Feb. 7, and 59 degrees on Feb. 8. Taken by itself, that quick warmup does not prove cold streaks don’t last as long. But when examined over the decades, there is no getting away from the trend. Here is how Buffalo is faring since 1970, with data compiled by NOAA and the National Centers for Environmental Information/NCEI.

Amid this seemingly good news for the throngs who hate winter and all that comes with it are real negative impacts. The trade association for winter recreation facilities has published data showing winter sports contribute $20 billion annually to the U.S. economy. Shorter periods of cold weather are putting a climate hurt on that industry, and the hurt will grow worse in coming decades. Western New York snowmobilers, from whom I hear frequently, can already tell you of unreliable, short seasons for open trails. There is no technology to make snow for those trails as there is for ski slopes.

Fruit trees require adequate winter chill as well. Although the numbers in that graphic reflect southern latitude requirements, our very large fruit-growing industry in Western New York faces a double-edged sword. In our climate zone, tree and crop damage can occur during infrequent severe freezes. But with shorter cold streaks, fruit growers run the risk of dealing with premature warmth followed by a spring cold snap.

This week's weather will have ups and downs but not much to shovel
Valentine's Day deep freeze aside, it's been a very odd winter
Snow arrives Wednesday evening with a frigid air mass to follow
A Winter Storm Severity Index is in the works

Growers can recount the large losses suffered in 2012 when not-that-uncommon frost and freeze conditions in April followed record warmth with some 80 degree days in March. Trees blossomed prematurely, and the blossoms died in the April cold snaps. “Chill hours” are crucial prior to blossoming. A spring like that of 2012 can be disastrous for the growers. An even worse, much larger-scale freeze hit a wide area in the southeast United States two years ago.

These shorter cold streaks can still pack a Sunday punch for us, as was the case at the tail end of January. However, our average winter temperatures have undeniably moved up since 1970.

The mean snowfall has shown a lesser downward trend. If you look at the yearly distribution on this graphic — the blue dots — you can see we still get whopper winter snowfall totals some years, amid the mean warming and shorter cold streaks.

The winter warming trend is national. Not a single part of the lower 48 states has experienced mean winter cooling since 1970 in this peer-reviewed data.

As for the future of winter cold, here is an animated national graphic based on a mean of virtually all the many climate models. The trend is crystal clear in the number of days with temperatures of 32 degrees or lower.

Winter is not going away by any stretch. It is, undeniably, shrinking in duration. Because few things in weather or climate are “linear,” following a straight line year by year, there will still be some harsh winters here in Western New York and elsewhere.

This winter has certainly had its ups and downs, with 97.6 inches of snow at the airport, 27 inches above average for the date. It’s also a little above average for an entire cold weather season, and we’re only in mid-February. November was much colder than average; December was milder than average; January was a little colder than average; and, so far, February has been running 4.7 degrees above average as of this writing.

In researching this article, I ran across a great resource for those of you who have an interest in climate science. You may want to bookmark it (and, no, I didn’t pick it because Rutgers is one of institutions behind it): It’s the Climate Impact Lab, and you can just scroll down to explore all it has to offer.

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