Early Winter Hits USA Hard

It was a cold walk to work today. I was able to wait until the temperature got into the double digits, but that isn’t saying much. It was one of those days when the sun was shining incredibly bright, turning the snow on the ground into glistening glitter. On first glance it looks warm… one would expect the jingle and smash of falling ice and rush of snowmelt that comes with a thaw. But if you look closer, you can tell. There is a strange edge to the light that you can see even before you step outside. Something about how the trees look against the sky, about the way the branches move. The branches don’t flex the way they do when it’s warm. The steam and smoke from chimneys billows upwards vigorously, or settles into valley-bottom inversions. There is an indescribable, razor-thin crispness to the world that, oddly, I’ve only also observed during the hottest, driest days in the desert.

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Bundling up always makes me think of astronauts and space suits… we really can’t survive without our technology in this environment, though in this case much of it is very old technology… fire and clothing.

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A walk through woods, fields, even suburban backyards with an inch of new snow on the ground reveals so many stories. I had no idea just how often the deer cross our field, or how they use the same path most of the time… the way a neighbor’s cat wanders through the rain garden on most mornings… the number of turkeys using nearby woods.

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Here in Vermont it has been unusually cold through November and much of December so far. The cold isn’t as extreme (relative to average, at least) as much of the country though. There has been sloppy slow in the Mid-Atlantic, a nasty ice storm in Texas, brutal blasts of arctic air in the Midwest and Plains, and unusual frost and low snow levels in lower elevations of California. Unfortunately, this cold pattern often coincides with dry weather in California, and much of the state has been incredibly dry for the last year (which now spans parts of two rainy seasons) and beyond. Many parts of the state may experience the driest calendar year on record. True, there are stories of two years in the late 1800s where the rains failed completely in parts of the state, including a terrifying account I once saw of a year where Santa Barbara went through an entire winter without a single drop of rain. The drought could be worse… but it isn’t good.

In any event, it looks like most of the ‘lower 48’ may be heading for the harshest winter we’ve seen in a while. There’s no guarantee the cold will last all winter – for instance, the coldest December on record in Vermont – December 1989 – was followed by the second warmest January on record for the state, and a warm February as well. Then again, the winter of 1978-1979 started cold and kept getting colder, with a downright frigid February. Only time will tell.

Not surprisingly, the cold snap has worked many climate change ‘denialists’ into a froth. One cold winter in one country means that the climate isn’t warming, right? Never mind that the arctic coast of Alaska was experiencing a freak thaw at the same time. Don’t get me wrong – bad science is not limited to those who don’t ‘believe’ in climate change. There are plenty of counter-examples of people blaming individual weather events on ‘climate change’ as well. But… there is some evidence that lack of Arctic sea ice can move cold south into the US. I made a blog post about this phenomena almost exactly 3 years ago during the start of a winter that turned out to be extremely snowy and relatively cold. I do think too much emphasis on ‘global warming’ as it pertains to 2 degrees of warming and melting sea ice. I personally believe the effects of human-caused climate change, at least for the net few decades, are and will continue to be felt much more strongly in changes in storm severity and track than changes in temperature. But we will find out I guess. And in the mean time… make sure to bundle up!

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