Winter Weather & Climate Change: A Report from the National Wildlife Federation

With the National Weather Service’s winter advisory in effect for the Great Plains and Midwest region, extreme winter weather is on the mind for many in the Northern United States.  Now is the perfect time for the global warming skeptics in your lives to come out in full force.  For those of you looking for a resource to equip you with meaningful research in the face of these doubters, the National Wildlife Federation’s recently published report, “Odd-ball Winter Weather: Global Warming’s Wake-Up Call for the Northern United States,” offers a great place to start.

The report provides significant charts and graphs detailing recent weather trends in the Northern United States, including shorter winters, rising temperatures, heavier precipitation, and declining ice cover in the Great Lakes.  According to the research, Spring arrives 10 to 14 days earlier than it did just 20 years ago.  Additionally, average December-May ice cover for the Great Lakes has declined by about 17% per decade since the 1970s.

What does all this have to do with winter storm warnings?  Winter temperatures often hover over the freezing point, and the slightest change in temperatures can make a big difference.  As temperatures rise, precipitation increases because warmer air can hold more water.  In West Michigan, lake-effect snow becomes especially prominent because a decline in ice cover in the Great Lakes allows for more surface water evaporation.

The NWF report reads:

Even as global warming is slowly changing the character of winter in the United States, we will still experience familiar year-to-year variability.  Because many different variables affect winter conditions – including temperature, moisture availability, storm tracks, and natural climate oscillations – and because global warming affects these variables in different ways, scientists do not expect a steady progression to less wintery conditions.

In addition to explaining the science behind the “Odd-ball Winter Weather” phenomenon, the report also provides valuable evidence of the impact global climate change has on fragile ecosystems as well as our economic and social structures.  Trends worth noting include:

  • Ecosystems thrown out of balance resulting in unchecked growth in populations of invasive species.  Without sufficient frosts and cold temperatures to keep them at bay, Pine bark beetles and ticks carrying Lyme disease may have a greater chance of surviving, migrating, and wreaking havoc on fragile ecosystems.
  • A decline in winter recreation due to increased variability in winter weather.  Skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing alone contribute $66 billion to the U.S. economy, and snowmobiling accounts for another $22 billion annually.
  • Unexpected snow removal costs in storm-affected areas.  Unpredictable weather conditions may leave many areas unprepared financially and structurally to deal with big storms.
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