The End of Winter

Posted on: January 16, 2012

It’s too early to say with certainty, but 2012 is shaping up as the year that winter forgot. All of December and the first week of January saw atypically mild temperatures throughout much of the U.S.–most dramatically in the usually harsh states of the far north and parts of the Plains. Fargo, N.D., hit 55°F on Jan. 5, breaking a more-than-a-century-old record for the warmest day in January. In December, at least half the U.S. had temperatures at least 5° above normal. At the end of 2011, less than 20% of the lower 48 was covered with snow, compared with more than 50% at the end of 2010. Ski resorts face the possibility of a dry, warm winter leaving slopes bare.

Is climate change the culprit? It’s important to remember that one season does not make a trend, and the warm temperatures of the past month and a half aren’t driven by any single variable. The winter of 2010/2011 saw unusually heavy snowfall in much of the U.S. and Europe experienced some of the coldest temperatures in history. And even this winter, Alaska is being buried in snow – a stunning 67” in one town during a 9-day stretch. Still, it’s undeniable that truly cold temperatures are becoming less and less common. In the U.S. since 1980, nearly every year has seen annual average temperatures higher than the long-term average.

To many people, that’s not a bad thing. But warmer winters can change nature in dangerous ways. Western bark beetles, which have ravaged pine trees in the West, are thriving because they’re no longer being knocked out by cold winters. A decline in mountain snowpack in the West can mean less water for dry states that are accustomed to meltwater runoff in the spring.

Climate change disrupts the rhythm of the seasons, that regular passage of time and temperature we assumed was fixed. As we keep altering the climate, who can tell what else might follow into unplanned obsolescence?

Excerpts from Time Article, by Bryan Walsh, Jan. 23, 2012

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