The mental adjustment you have to make every year from summer mode to winter mode is always wearing. But it seems to be getting more complicated for reasons, it turns out, beyond the, um, late 60s. Before it snowed this past weekend, I noticed myself hoping it wouldn’t snow this winter.

What?

The feelings that went with this counter-reality realization were complicated. First, disappointment, because I’ve lived in Maine most of my life and know, of course, that in winter, it snows. Second, dejection — three to four months are still left to pass before we can reasonably hope snow will stop accumulating. Third, what the hell was I thinking?

The fact that I would even have such a thought is alarming. Surely it signals a certain detachment from reality, or at least a state of mental denial that would be downright dangerous in February, when the low-slung afternoon sun is slowly wringing the neck of the geranium in the window, as Ken Frost so aptly stated it. As an old-time backwoods Mainer said to me with absolute certainty one bare mid-December day about 50 years ago in Buxton, “Don’t worry about white Christmas. There’s always ground cover.”

I own my craziness. But, maybe it’s not just me.

For one thing, didn’t winter always used to run from November to March? It seems like I remember Novembers with brutal cold and huge snowstorms — not always, mind you, but often enough to be ready for it. In recent years, though, October has pushed further into November, the meteorologists don’t seem bothered by runs of 50-degree days, and it’s entirely reasonable to think it might not snow until December. (Maybe not even then. Haha.) And on the other end, February crashes cavalierly on into March every year lately, and March shoves its nighttime ice and daytime slush and mud and occasional blizzard into April.

This is all my imagination, right? Well, it turns out, it’s not.

First of all, there is a clear-cut statistical correlation between November and the rest of the winter, which WCSH meteorologist Ryan Breton calls the “November Rule.” When November temperatures are milder, then winter temperatures tend to be milder and snowfall totals lower.

These tendencies hold 60% to 70% of the time in Portland and Bangor, and at slightly lower percentages in Caribou. (Just for the record, this November was in the top 10 warmest Novembers for Portland and Bangor. Maybe it won’t snow! Hahaha.)

Next, there is the documented climatological fact that the Northeast, indeed most of the Northern Hemisphere, is on average significantly warmer now than it has been historically. Most of Maine has reached average annual temperatures that are 1.5 to upward of 2 degrees Celsius (2.7-3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than the average temperature since 1835.

Darker colors represent springs that are unusually early or late in the long-term record. Gray indicates an average spring. In parts of the Midwest and Northeast, 2020’s spring bloom was the latest on record. Graphic courtesy of USA National Phenology Network/USGS

Next, spring really is arriving later. Maps developed from the USA National Phenology Network’s analyses of data on leaf and blossoming times of certain plants; weather; and seasonal movements of animals show that in most of Maine, this past spring arrived much later than it has historically. It was the same story over much of the Northeast and parts of the Great Lakes region. (Farther south this year, spring arrived earlier than usual, much earlier from the Carolinas down to northern Florida.) A USA-NPN report indicates that from 1981-2010, spring bloom has been occurring up to three weeks later than it has historically in parts of the Northeast and Midwest. (Phenology is a component of ecological science, studying seasonal and cyclic natural phenomena.)

This scientific description accords with my own unofficial grouchiness about April in recent years. Before about 2010, our dandelions showed up like clockwork on May 1. Lately they haven’t popped before mid-May. It’s hard to find clear year-by-year data for temperatures, but I’ll bet anything that late-blooming springs occur when March invades April. And when October invades November.

What’s happening, exactly, scientists are reluctant to specify. Except to make the very general observation that this kind of disruption seems very much like what you’d see during significant changes in climate. And not to put too fine a point on it, but the Earth’s climate is well into the process of changing significantly. And this is due directly, of course, to the 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide we puke into the atmosphere every year. (In this pandemic year, we are all collectively, from Augusta to Shanghai, puking less carbon dioxide because of less transportation activity. It’s not going to slow by one inch the climate change that is speeding downhill at us like an enormous mudslide, though.)

So by common wisdom, my hope that it might not snow this winter was ridiculous. There’s always ground cover. But not totally unfounded.

If the atmosphere continues to heat up like this, and adds roughly 3 more degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in the next 75 years — which climate models show is not implausible — then New York City will be on average as hot as Bahrain. It would not be snowing here, in that climate.

I concede. It really was demented to hope it doesn’t snow.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] His book “A Backyard Book of Spiders in Maine” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: