We Need Winter
Winters are changing faster than any season. That’s not exactly great news.
But to a lot of folks, the idea of a little less winter doesn’t seem so bad.
After all, warmer temperatures can mean less snow, and that means less shoveling. They can mean less ice on roadways and power lines, fewer weather-related school delays, and lower heating bills.
And all that sounds great. But unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy.
Because we need winter – and the climate crisis is changing the season as we know it.
It might seem like we’re going a little big here, but the truth is this: the natural calendar that guides our lives is changing because of the climate crisis – and the consequences could be far-reaching.
During the summer months, the effects of the climate crisis are becoming more and more plain. Deadly heat waves. Powerful tropical storms. Community-leveling wildfires.
But it’s happening in the winter too – even if those effects become ever so slightly more difficult to see between the gently falling snowflakes in places still contending with traditional winter weather.
Speaking of winter weather, we should be clear here: it’s just that – weather. Weather describes what’s happening at a particular moment in time and in a particular place. Weather can change minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.
Winter weather can certainly be impacted by the climate crisis – indeed, it’s the reason some places may be seeing more snow or feeling more extreme cold, as Arctic warming and a resultant weakened jet stream allow frigidly cold temperatures to slip into areas not accustomed to seeing it.
>> More on that here: YES, IT’S COLD. YES, OUR CLIMATE IS (STILL) CHANGING <<
It’s also vital to understand that “less cold” does not mean “never cold.” In most places. At least for now.
Climate, on the other hand, is the average weather over time, usually 30 years or more, and space. It’s also relatively stable, or at least it had been for much of human history – until relatively recently.
That relative stability is why we have a pretty good idea of what will happen broadly with temperatures each season – because we saw it happen about this time last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. (You can learn more on the differences between climate and weather here.)
But the climate crisis is flipping the script and throwing our natural systems out of balance – and in many regions, winters are actually warming faster than any other season.
Climate Central reports that winters across the contiguous US have warmed by an average of nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit over the last half-century. And northern states are seeing an even larger impact, with over 5 degrees Fahrenheit of average winter warming in Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
They’re also sputtering to an end earlier and earlier in some regions – and that’s bad news for farmers in particular (which means it’s really bad news for the rest of us).
In Nature, Timing is Everything
“Doesn’t it feel like flowers and trees bloom earlier and earlier every year?” has become a pretty common refrain in this – Climate Reality HQ is located in Washington, DC in the United States – and many other parts of the world.
But the thing is, they really are. Last year, the famous cherry blossoms in DC arrived early. So did the ones in Kyoto, Japan; hitting their peak on “the earliest [date] in more than 1,200 years of records.”
We know on the surface, that can seem like a fairly minor inconvenience. Travelers will be less able to dependably plan trips to see fancy flowers. Oh, no – right?
But it’s not just these headline grabbing examples. Climate change is blurring the line between winter and spring, a phenomenon known as “season creep” – and its impacts are far-reaching.
Allergy seasons beginning earlier and lasting longer? Check.
Changing travel patterns for migratory birds and pollinating insects? Check
Farmers not being able to reliably plant their crops, or seeing early starting crops lost to late-season frosts? Check and check.
Wait, about that last one. Did it freak you out a little? It should have.
“Climate change disrupts the critically important timing of events, such as snowmelt and spring bloom, upon which ecosystems and agricultural industries depend. For example, warmer winters can lead to early bud-burst or bloom of some perennial plants, resulting in frost damage when cold conditions occur in late spring,” Climate Nexus writes.
“All species do not respond to the change of seasonal cues in the same way. This can lead to mismatches between the availability of flowers and their pollinators or predators and their prey.”
It’s an ecosystem, after all.
In a normal year, springtime flowers bloom at just the right time to lend their nectar to bees and other emerging or returning insects, pollinating those flowers in the process. This process is integral to the growth of the fruits, vegetables, berries, and more that we rely on…to survive.
The relationships between plants, animals, and their environment are complex – and delicate.
So what happens when the flowers bloom too soon, following a sooner-than-usual February thaw or an “unseasonably” (whatever that means anymore…) warm early March, well ahead of the return of bees and other pollinating insects?
What about when this absence of essential environmental and climate sync becomes the new norm as seasons keep on creeping while the world gets warmer and warmer?
It’s enough to prompt worry. When spring arrives earlier and earlier with the passing years, it comes with a cost.
Some Trees Need To Chill
There’s also the fact that some plants require cold temperatures to, well, do their thing.
Sugar maples require cold weather to produce sap, and according to the US Geological Survey, “producers are already reporting earlier and more variable tapping seasons.”
Other plants require a period of winter dormancy to grow correctly in the following seasons.
Many berry bushes and some fruit trees, including apple, peach, and cherry, require a period of rest each winter to prepare to produce fruit the following spring and summer. This literal chilling period ends, and the trees prepare to wake up from dormancy and bud after a certain period of warm-up.
“The amount of required warming is cumulative, measured by counting the number of degrees each day above a threshold temperature, usually 40°F. This cumulative warming, combined with how well the tree met its chilling requirement over the winter, determines whether a tree buds early or late in the spring,” Climate Central writes.
In addition to needing the winterly chill to thrive, many of these same plants then run into more issues when they meet our old friend, season creep. Because if this threshold is met during an early season warm period, followed by a return to more conventionally seasonable temperatures, buds – and with them, the fruit and produce they would later yield – can easily die off.
And with them, farmers’ hopes of turning a profit and shoppers hopes of full market shelves with reasonably priced, healthy foods.
Winter Sports and Tourism
For many communities around the world, winter means snow and snow means life. Because with snow come crowds. And that means not just skiers plunging down the mountain, but guests in hotel rooms, families dining in restaurants, and customers in grocery and other retail stores.
It’s no surprise then that for winter sports communities, rising temperatures during their most important months of the year aren’t just an inconvenience. They’re not a reason to throw your jacket off, sigh, and soak up the sun. They’re an existential threat to the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands – perhaps millions, as impacts trickle down – of real people. Right now.
And unless we act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the forecast for the numerous mountain towns synonymous with skiing and winter sports isn’t great. One study even projects that warmer winter weather could mean ski seasons shrinking by as much as 50% by 2050.
2050. Twenty-eight years from now.
Heck, only one of the 21 cities that have previously hosted the Olympic Winter Games will be able to do so again by the 2080s, according to a recent study.
And of course, warming winter temperatures and decreasing snowpack on mountainsides around the globe affects more than just winter sports and recreation. There’s the little matter of the consequences it has for an essential source of water across the world.
High-elevation snowmelt constitutes the headwaters of many rivers and is diminishing because of the climate crisis, causing the entire river system to dwindle, and leaving those who rely on it to endure the perils of water scarcity and all that comes with it.
What You Can Do
The point is, no matter what we look like, what we do, or where we call home, climate change threatens us all – all the time, even in the season least identified with it.
So what do we do about it?
We fight back with everything we’ve got. Now, while there’s still time.
Because there really is a path to limiting global warming and ending the climate crisis. We really can do it while lifting everyone up and providing justice to those who’ve contributed the least to climate change but experience its impacts first and worst. We really can do it all – together.
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