Snowfall was well below average this winter in Portland and temperature swings made sure it melted quickly, continuing a trend that scientists say is consistent with long-term climate change.

Portland received 44.1 inches of snow over the last four months compared to an average of 66.1 inches, said meteorologist Hunter Tubbs at the National Weather Service office in Gray. “We got only two-thirds of what we would normally get,” Tubbs said.

When it did snow, the powder didn’t hang around. Average temperatures over the past four months were slightly above average, but there were some wild swings.

On Jan. 31, the temperature was seven degrees below zero in Portland. On Feb. 23, it was a balmy 66 degrees, shattering the previous record for the date of 61 degrees set in 1990. “That’s a 70 degree swing,” Tubbs said.

“It’s been a horrible winter,” said Arnold Rosario Jr., a retiree from Windham.  “We’ve had more freezing rain. Walking is more treacherous.”

Rosario, who battled the freezing rain while taking his dog for frequent walks, said he’d take piles of fluffy snow any day compared to this winter.

Arnold Rosario Jr. of Windham was a mail carrier in Portland when a blizzard dumped 16 to 18 inches of snow and monster drifts on the city 40 years ago this Wednesday. Like many, he’d take fluffy snow over the freezing rain that has been common in recent winters. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Rosario remembers 40 years ago this Wednesday, when a spring blizzard shut down Portland and other parts of the Northeast. The blizzard dropped 16 to 18 inches of snow on the city, an unusual amount so late in the year even when snowy winters were common.

Rosario was a postal carrier in Portland in April 1982 and recalls the fierce winds and the monster drifts that made roads impassable. “I remember it like yesterday.”

Scientists say climate change doesn’t rule out the possibility of a spring snowstorm. But with temperatures expected to remain in the 40s and 50s this week, the forecast is instead calling for more rain.



Sean Birkel, a researcher and assistant professor at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, said climate warming means that Maine winters “are diminishing in the terms of duration.” Like many areas in the country, winter has become shorter, a trend that will continue, Birkel said.

“What we are observing is winter tends to have a later onset. Lakes and ponds freeze up later in the year as opposed to freezing in early December,” particularly in the southern half of the state. Some lakes don’t freeze until January, and southern Maine lakes might not get much ice at all, he said. Also, there’s less reliable snow and snowpack on the ground.

At the Climate Change Institute, scientists chart the cold and warm during the Maine winters dating back to 1895. The winters can vary year to year, but in general there’s a clear warming trend.

“There’s an overall trend of warmer winters. We’re not seeing cold days, (but) more instances of temperatures that get well above freezing,” Birkel said. “We’re not seeing the very cold we saw in the 1900’s.” Historically, the Penobscot Bay and harbors used to freeze in the early 1900’s. “That doesn’t occur anymore.”

“We still may get a winter that feels cold and has decent snow. But over time, winters will continue to diminish, especially in the coastal and central” parts of Maine, Birkel said.

The average temperature in Portland from December through March was 29 degrees, slightly above the historical average of 28.3 degrees, according to National Weather Service data. But the cold came late and the warmup came early. December was warmer than normal. January was colder. February and March were both warmer again.


Warmer winters and less snow means less opportunities for snowmobiling, ice fishing, cross country skiing, sledding and pond skating. Milder winters also mean that Lyme disease can be more common, as warmer temperatures allow ticks, which carry Lyme disease, to thrive.

In southern Maine, the milder temperatures and lack of snowpack led to an early migration of amphibians and the return of spring peepers. The so-called big night, when frogs and salamanders emerge from hibernation and migrate to vernal pools, occurred March 31 in the Portland area, a couple weeks earlier than normal.

“I am guessing (the big night) will start happening earlier in a more consistent way over the next decade, but we don’t have enough data to say that’s the case just yet,” said Sally Stockwell, the director of conservation for the Maine Audubon Society.

In general, the entire state is warming, but the impacts are less obvious in northern Maine.


“Northern Maine still has decent snowpacks and nice, normal winters, but the duration is shrinking,” Birkel said. “Lakes tend to ice out earlier in the spring, but not as much as the southern half of the state, where it’s feeling the impact of warming winter climate more.”


The Caribou National Weather Service office reports that northern Maine had more of an old-fashioned winter this year. Caribou received 119.3 inches of snow, higher than the average of 109.6 inches, weather service meteorologist Chris Norcross said.

This year’s mild winter in southern and central Maine eliminated some traditional fun with a number of festivals called off.

Old Orchard Beach’s winter carnival, planned for Feb. 26, was canceled because of a lack of snow, as was  the Woodlawn Winter Carnival in Ellsworth. In Lisbon, the winter festival at Beaver Park, which usually attracts 400 people, was canceled because of fluctuating temperatures and a shortage of snow. And the Maine Audubon called off its Feb. 19 winter carnival at Gilsland Farm, citing a lack of  snow and unsafe conditions. “We’ve got sheets of ice in the fields, at the orchard and on the trails,” the Maine Audubon posted on its website.

Bob Stickney of the Rumford Polar Bears Snowmobile Club said this winter “was very poor.”

“We average 80.9 inches of snow,” he said. “This year we only got 66 inches. It makes for a short season. This year we had a later start and had to finish early.” Snowmobiling ended in early March this year, he said. “Years ago we were riding into April.”

There was enough ice on Sebago Lake for the annual ice fishing derby in February but it’s no longer a sure thing. “We were very happy that the week prior we did have sufficient low temperatures day and night. It did freeze up the lake even better,” organizer Cyndy Bell said.


“I remember as a kid the lake was frozen all the time,” said Phil Strike, chief of the Sebago Fire Department. “It just doesn’t happen often now.”

This winter’s wetter storms made it more difficult to treat roads.

“We prefer nice, dry snow, even if it’s a lot of it,” Maine Turnpike Director Peter Mills said. “With snow, you push it off. You’re done. But with sleet, ice and rain, it freezes and coats highways” forcing crews to keep salting and scraping.

When sleet storms hit, the freezing rain can be like “concrete going down on the roads. We have to do a lot of salting. We would rather plow 12 inches of snow,” said Portland Public Works Director Christopher Branch.

An abandoned car lies in a deep snow drift on Franklin Street on April 7, 1982, the day after a late-season blizzard dropped 16 inches of snow on the city. John Ewing/Staff Photographer


Branch was working for Lewiston Public Works on April 6, 1982, and also can clearly remember the surprise snowstorm.


“We got 16 or 18 inches of snow a week before I went to Florida,” Branch said with a chuckle. “We knew a storm was coming, (but) anytime you get that much snow in April, it was a surprise.”

So much snow fell on Maine that much of Lewiston, like Portland, basically shut down for a few days, Branch said.

Rosario, the retired mail carrier, recalls waste deep drifts outside his front door. “I couldn’t get out of my yard,” he said “People couldn’t get in to work. Cars were stuck in snow drifts. Cars were stuck in the middle of Congress Street.”

In Portland, only about 10 percent of the mail carriers were able to get to work, and some of them had to spend the night at the Forest Avenue post office, Rosario said.

It took a while for the city’s plow trucks to attack the snowdrifts, he said. When the plows did get out, “they couldn’t get down the street there were so many stranded vehicles.”

Despite the clear warming trend and declining snowfalls, a spring blizzard could still happen under the right conditions, said Birkel, the Climate Change Institute researcher.

Branch believes it. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all,” he said.

Even with the forecast calling for mild temperatures and rain, Portland’s plow trucks are still in winter mode, Branch said. “We will be for a week and a half.”

Staff Writer Lana Cohen contributed to this report.

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