Snow has been a no-show for some traditionally wintry cities
Growing up in New England, Leah Ofsevit's most cherished childhood memories were blanketed in snow. She remembers running barefoot outside with her brother at the first sign of it, building snowmen and ice castles most winters, strapping on skis as a toddler.
Ofsevit and her husband, Jeremy Garczynski, want to pass those traditions onto their children, 3-year-old Lewis and 8-month-old Asher. They were hoping this would be the year: Tiny skis were purchased for Lewis, and they planned to ski their favorite Massachusetts ski trails while dragging Asher behind them in a sled.
But three months into winter, with March arriving, their skis and sleds are mostly gathering dust. She doesn't like it one bit.
“It's not what I envisioned for my kids,” says Ofsevit, who was on her high school cross-country ski team and lives in Melrose, just outside Boston. “Its such a big part of being a kid in New England.”
For much of the eastern United States, from Massachusetts all the way down to parts of West Virginia and into Ohio, winter has been a bust. While parts of the Midwest have been hit with repeated snow storms, much of California including Los Angeles got blanketed of late and even parts of the Southwest saw near-blizzard conditions, many East Coast cities have missed out.
Boston, known for nasty nor’easters and a blizzard last year that dumped nearly two feet of snow on the city, had seen just over 11 inches as of last week compared to an average of 38.6, according to data from the National Weather Service. Philadelphia has gotten only 0.3 inches compared to an average of 19.2. New York, which typically gets over two feet by now, has seen only 2.2 inches. Similar shortfalls have been seen in Providence, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C. and parts of West Virginia.
There have been exceptions like Buffalo, which in November got walloped thanks to lake-effect storm, caused by cold air picking up moisture from warmer lakes. Yet, says David Robinson, a Rutgers University geography professor and the New Jersey state climatologist: “For the most part, it's been a winterless winter.”
A big reason for the lack of snow has been the warmer conditions, Robinson says — conditions driven in part by human-induced climate change. The northeast is among the fastest warming regions in the country.
The region has seen plenty of precipitation, but often it has been too warm to snow. Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont all had their warmest January on record, while Indiana, New York and Pennsylvania their second warmest, according to the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But other factors are at play.
La Niña, which involves a large-scale cooling of ocean surface temperatures, has led to unusual cool conditions in the eastern Pacific Ocean. As a result, the jet stream, which would bring colder conditions to the region, has kept that air closer to the Canadian border rather than dropping down into the northeast.
The polar vortex, which spins like a whirling top above the North Pole, also remained strong through mid-January, which kept the colder air bottled up in Canada, according to Judah Cohen, who studies the relationship between the polar vortex and the weather and is the director of seasonal forecasting for Verisk AER.
This could become the new normal. The weather service analyzed snowfall totals back to 2019 in the contiguous United States and found the states whose totals are furthest off their average as of mid-February were on the East Coast.
For many who pride themselves on thriving in New England winters, the unusually warm conditions have been disorienting and downright depressing. Gone are the four seasons and the scenes many have long associated with winter — snow blanketing backyards, covering trees and piling up in mounds on street corners and in parking lots.
Instead, the landscape offers brown grass, muddy backyards and spring flowers blooming early.
“When I retired, I thought winter would be my joyful time because I will be able to ski when I want, be outdoors .... enjoy everything having to do with winter,” Leah Ofsevit’s mother, Nancy Mazonson. “It's not beautiful outside ... It's not mysterious. It’s just the same old same old without the magic of snow.”
Caroline Nagy moved from New York City to Troy in upstate New York with her husband in hopes of catching colder and snowier winters. It hasn't turned out as she expected. “A warm month is one thing," says Nagy, “but a warm winter is scary.”
The warmer conditions have been especially hard on traditional winter sports.
Cross-country ski trails have not opened in many locations. Ice skaters have abandoned backyard ponds. Some ski resorts, especially those that rely on natural snow, have struggled to remain open. In Pennsylvania, Whitetail Resort has already closed for the season; in Cherry Creek, New York, Cockaigne Resort announced on its webpage that it was closing due to the warm temperatures and rain. And a popular 216-mile sled dog race in Michigan's Upper Peninsula was cancelled due to unfavorable weather for the first time in its 33-year-history.
“Wherever it was already thin, now it was turning to ice,” says Darlene Walch, president of the Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association. “When the snow pack gets saturated, it will turn to concrete when it freezes. It’s not good for the dogs, and it’s hard for the mushers to control their sleds.”
Many lakes and ponds have not frozen over, including the Great Lakes, where less than 12% of the surface area was covered with ice as of early March, according to NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The historical average for this time of year is closer to 40%.
As a result, ice fishing tournaments from Maine to Pennsylvania have been scrapped. Several people have fallen through the ice, including three fishermen who died in a week on Lake Champlain in Vermont.
The lack of winter's symptoms has not been all bad. Spring-like conditions have been a boon to bicycle commuters. Golfers have been spotted on courses that, this time of year, typically host skiers. Tennis courts are bustling on warm days, and playgrounds are filled with children.
Cities like Boston, Philadelphia and New York are expected to save millions of dollars budgeted for snow removal. Connecticut's 169 cities and towns traditionally use their entire snow budgets by the end of winter, but Kevin Maloney, spokesperson for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, says that this year, “the budgets have been virtually untouched.”
Robinson, the New Jersey climatologist, says snow isn’t going away anytime soon. “There’s no sign of any decline in the large events,” he says. “There’s beginning to be some evidence that we’re having fewer of the smaller events."
Yet for the small businesses that plow parking lots and salt roads, it has been tough.
“I have never personally been through a winter like this,” says Jordan Kenyon, who is the co-owner of two snow management businesses in Mystic, Connecticut. Typically, they plan for 10 storms along the southeastern Connecticut shoreline and 15 inland events. This year, he says, his crews have been out only a handful of times to spread salt and plowed just once.
Despite this year’s snow-challenged winter, Kenyon says he’s not counting out the snow-removal part of his business.
“There’s always going to be snow at some point. And so, we don’t see changing the business model," he says. “But we may have to make operational adjustments if we see this pattern continuing.”