Winter is here, but it is losing its cool

By | December 21, 2023

Winter is here, but for most of the United States it feels less and less like it.

At 10:27 PM ET on Thursday, Earth’s Northern Hemisphere will be at its greatest distance from the Sun, marking the winter solstice: the shortest day of the year and the official start of the coldest season.

But winter is warming rapidly due to human-induced climate change, impacting snow, tourism, winter sports, local economies, signs and even allergies.

The winter period from December to February is now the fastest warming of the three months for nearly 75% of the U.S., according to an analysis of NOAA temperature data by Climate Central, a nonprofit climate research group.

The analysis looked at average winter temperatures for 240 locations across the U.S. and found that the winter warming trend covers every corner of the map: Temperatures had warmed in 97%, or 233, of locations since 1970.

Climate CentralClimate Central

Climate Central

Winter temperatures in these warming areas have risen an average of 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970. Winters in the fastest-warming cities have warmed by as much as 7 degrees.

The Northeast and Upper Midwest are the regions that are warming the fastest, with winter temperatures nearing 5 degrees. This includes some ski towns like Burlington, Vermont (7.7 degree increase) and Concord, New Hampshire (6.6 degree increase). Winter in notoriously cold Milwaukee is now an average of 6.7 degrees warmer.

For many, a little extra winter warmth may sound nice. But milder winters have consequences.

“Winter plays an important role in the life cycles of plants, animals and insects, recharging freshwater supplies and maintaining snow and ice for winter recreation, which supports local economies,” said Lauren Casey, meteorologist at Climate Central.

A warmer winter does not mean that the entire season is as sultry as summer; there will still be cold days in a warmer climate. But the winter cold will become less frequent and less extreme. As average temperatures rise, there will be less room for extreme cold fluctuations.

Climate CentralClimate Central

Climate Central

Cold snaps in the US are now an average of six days shorter than in 1970, according to Climate Central data. And while cold temperatures will still occasionally set records, they are much more likely to be surpassed by warm records.

There will be twice as many warm temperature records in 2023 as there will be colder records. At night, the discrepancy widens, and there are three times as many record warm low temperatures compared to record cold ones, NOAA data shows.

Minimum nighttime temperatures are warming faster in winter than in any other season since records began in 1896. Winter nighttime temperatures have warmed at a rate of 1.78 degrees per century since 1900 – 25% faster than the rate for the highest daytime temperatures in winter, according to CNN analysis of NOAA data.

A separate Climate Central analysis of overnight low temperatures in 231 U.S. locations found that 88%, or 204 cities, experienced a long-term decline in the average number of frigid nights per year since 1970.

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CNN

Reno, Nevada, now averages 91 fewer freezing nights per year, losing more than any other location on the list. Cities in Nevada, Arizona, California and Florida that used to experience the occasional below-freezing night no longer feel the cold at all.

Even cities known for their cold outbreaks – such as Buffalo, New York, Chicago, New York City, Boston and Detroit – now no longer experience two to three weeks of frigid nights each year.

These changes are bad news for several sectors that depend on predictable cold.

An International Olympic Committee study found that rising temperatures could cause the ski season to “start a month later and end three months earlier,” a finding that threatens to take $1 billion out of the U.S. economy, according to a 2018 study. by the climate advocacy organization POW and REI.

On U.S. farms, the $27 billion fruit and nut industry is losing cold time as winters warm — a necessary exposure for crops to cold temperatures that help them bloom well in the spring, another analysis from Climate found Central.

For example, achievable cold season in California’s fertile Central Valley, where 40% of U.S. fruits and nuts are grown, could drop by 25% by the end of the 21st century, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With less time to chill, there may be fewer produce such as walnuts, pistachios and cherries available, and what remains is likely to be of lower quality, the USDA says.

“That could obviously impact food companies, but also lead to higher food prices that could contribute to or worsen food insecurity,” Casey told CNN.

The warmer, longer growing season also increases exposure to pests and pollen, which worsens allergies.

Worse still, for winter lovers, the season of sniffles and sneezes will also arrive sooner than you might expect – warming winters mean spring will arrive weeks ahead of schedule.

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