The Impact of a Warm and Snowless January

| February 3, 2023

By Peter Aronson

This winter, New York City and much of the Northeast has experienced not only a troubling snow drought, but also a January heat wave.

January 2023 was the warmest January in the city’s recorded history, as it was in Newark, Islip, and Bridgeport, CT; Worster, MA; and Montpelier, VT, and other places, according to The Washington Post.

Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Providence, Baltimore, Washington and other cities experienced their second warmest January.

And despite the Arctic blast we received this weekend, the warm winter has led New York City down a record-breaking snowless path, with the dusting the city received on Feb. 1 scoring another record – as the latest first measurable snowfall in the city’s history. The city had gone 328 days with a snow accumulation, the second longest snowless streak in history.

We looked into the impact of this virtually snowless, historically warm winter.

First off, warmer air causes more water vapor to evaporate into the atmosphere. This can lead to more extreme weather in the form of more intense rainstorms and larger snow storms, where they are prevalent. Buffalo, which has had one of its snowiest winters on record, is an example. Buffalo sits alongside Lake Erie, and the city is known to get huge snow storms because of the so-called “lake effect.”

“Warmer temperatures mean it takes longer for the Great Lakes to freeze over in the fall and winter,” said David Easterling, chief of the climate assessments section for the NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, as quoted in MarketWatch. “Open (unfrozen) water simply means more fuel for nature’s snow machine known as lake-effect snow.”   

The warmer weather has caused extreme rain storms in various places, which can lead to flooding.

The impact extends beyond the winter months. Less snow means less snow melt in the spring, which leads to reduced streamflow, impacting the water supply for agriculture and for consumer use.

The MarketWatch article, by Rachel Koning Beals, went on to explain that the warmer weather “can be devastating to crops and garden plants when they lack the cooler weather they need for a chilled dormancy.” This can lead to less fruit production and weakened plants more prone to disease and pests. In addition, the National Snow and Ice Center (NSIC), at the University of Colorado, Boulder, explains that the unusually warm winter – a “false start” spring – can impact migration patterns and cause plants, insects, migratory birds and crops to become vulnerable to spring freeze.

Lack of snow can be part of this, the NSIC explained, because without snow cover, the ground absorbs 4-6 times more of the sun’s energy, heating earth more quickly.  

The Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported in the end of January that in New York state “there are concerns grain crops and forage crops may not do as well this year in fields with lack of snow cover and ponding water.”      

The warm start to the new year followed a year that was the fifth warmest on record. NASA’s report details the impact of global warming in 2022.

“This warming trend is alarming,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Our warming climate is already making a mark: Forest fires are intensifying; hurricanes are getting stronger; droughts are wreaking havoc and sea levels are rising.”

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