Earth Talk: Are we Losing Winter?

PHOTO CAP: "If you've ever enjoyed ice skating, sledding, skiing, snow boarding or building a snowman, you should know that the future of these enshrined institutions is by no means guaranteed." Photo Credit: "Getty Images."

Earth Talk
Are we Losing Winter?

Dear EarthTalk: 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, MA

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 Fahrenheit since 1970. The years 2006 and 1998 were the first and second warmest years on record in the U.S. 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 a tenth of one degree Fahrenheit per decade to almost a third of a degree now.
By 2100, temperatures in the Northeastern U.S. are predicted to have risen by 8-12 degrees Fahrenheit, with the number of snow days half of what we are used to 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."
And it seems that as one moves farther north, more and more winter is lost. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment of 2004 reported that Arctic temperatures are now rising at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the world (as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 100 years), reducing sea ice and melting frozen soils. It's been widely reported that Alaska's polar bears are probably doomed by 2050, but the scale of this climatic shift will likely do much more-completely changing 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 intensity and duration. "If you've ever enjoyed ice skating, sledding, skiing, snowboarding or building a snowman, writes E - The Environmental Magazine, you should know that the future of these enshrined institutions is by no means guaranteed."
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 are shuttling people up the mountain. Snowmaking machines, originally intended to just cover any slack left by Mother Nature, now operate to capacity throughout the winter.
And snowmobile manufacturers report a 50 percent drop in sales over the last decade as the number of snow-covered days diminishes. Yet another business casualty is New England's maple syrup industry, which has been thwarted in recent years by early thaws which have depleted production capacity by as much as 50 percent. According to Tom McCrumm of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, there may no longer be a maple sugar industry in New England by 2100.

Contacts: National Climatic Data Center, www.ncdc.noaa.gov; Union of Concerned Scientists, www.ucsusa.org; Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, www.massmaple.org.
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