We know winter is changing. We can see it in the change in snow, the warm rains, and the above-freezing temperatures.
Much of the conversation on changing winters has focused on New England due to the rapid loss of snow. However, New England isn’t the only place experiencing the impacts of climate change on colder months.
The Mid-Atlantic region, which includes southern New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Virginia, and part of eastern West Virginia, has seen drastic shifts in winter weather. Historically winter weather monitoring hasn’t been robust in the Mid-Atlantic—a key NOAA study only goes back to 1991, compared to areas in New England which have data all the way back to the 1930s and even earlier — but even a few decades is enough to track emerging trends and changes.
According to the NOAA study, in the Mid-Atlantic, the 2022-2023 winter was, on average, between 4 and 6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than historical records. Charlottesville, Virginia had its warmest winter ever, and towns from New York to Virginia saw winters that landed in their top-10 warmest in recorded history. This is on track with a recently released paper in the scientific journal Nature, which confirmed that long-term warming trends are “robust” throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
This winter warming is expected to continue — and accelerate. The Mid-Atlantic region currently sees about 43 days per year where the lowest temperatures are below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. By the end of the century, the region will only have around 14 days below 20 degrees, a reduction of 67%, according to NOAA estimates.
Snowfall is changing in the Mid-Atlantic, too. In the 2022-2023 winter season, the region received less snow than normal, with the southern part of the region receiving less than 25% of its usual snowfall. Cities in Maryland and Virginia experienced their least snowy winters ever. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania experienced a 715-day “snow drought,” with no snow between January 2022 and the beginning of 2024. The snowfall that finally broke the dry spell was just over 1 inch.
Less snow and warmer weather have a direct impact on our day-to-day lives. Melting snow fills rivers and streams and refills groundwater supply. Less water entering aquifers can cause salt water intrusion, meaning available water may not be usable. Melting in high volumes can cause flooding and other damaging events. And warmer temperatures earlier in the season can prompt changes in plant phenology, or seasonal cycles, by affecting things like flowering or seed setting times. Fruit tree crops are particularly susceptible to temperature fluctuations: warm weather prompts early flowering, but those flowers are vulnerable to frost, which can mean no fruit forms on the tree.
So what can we do? It’s undeniable that climate change is already here. While we can’t reverse it, we can act to slow, minimize, and mitigate the rate of change. In a 2017 paper modeling the length of ski and snowboard seasons across the U.S., a “continued high emissions” scenario saw a 60-80% loss of season days by 2050, as opposed to a 20-40% loss of days in an “all hands on deck” scenario. What we choose to do now matters for the future.
There are many ways we can reduce our individual carbon footprints, including avoiding single-use plastics, eating less meat and dairy, and conserving energy and water. By calculating your carbon footprint, you can decide which areas you may want to tackle. One of the best ways to make a large-scale impact is to vote for the outdoors. As a 2020 AMC blog on living more sustainably says:
“Environmental change starts at the individual, but if you want to support big changes in environmental policy and conservation, be sure to do so by voting for candidates that align with your environmental causes, voicing your concerns to your elected officials on certain issues, and supporting conservation organizations either financially or by volunteering.”
Small actions add up to large impacts. We have power over how much change we want to see in our winters.