How a Brown Christmas in New Hampshire Brought Climate Change Home

I hoped for a chill in the air, snow on the ground, and Jack Frost nipping at various extremities. Instead, I got 40-degree days and rain.

Here’s a confession: I don’t care that much about climate change. I know it’s bad, but where issues of economic justice and civil liberties always clicked for me, I adopted bien pensant positions on environmental policy without any particular passion—at least until the Brown Christmas of 2011.

Returning to my ancestral home in New Hampshire from my newly adopted residence in Los Angeles, I hoped for a chill in the air, snow on the ground, and Jack Frost nipping at various extremities. Instead, I got 40-degree days and rain. Visions of Bing Crosby no longer danced in my head.

As it turns out, the entire nation saw a noticeably snowless holiday season this year: While the data isn’t out for December yet, November was one of the hottest ever across the United States, and 2011 has been marked by higher-than-average temperatures. The previous year, 2010, was the warmest on record.

It’s not wise to attribute any single weather event to climate change, the gradual and dangerous increase in global temperature that scientific consensus attributes to increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere. Nonetheless, researchers say that the heavy storms and volatile weather patterns in the last two years (2011 was one of the worst years for weather-related natural disasters in the United States) have come in part because increasing moisture in the warmer air has acted like “steroids” for storms.

This year’s mild winter in the Northeast is largely attributable to the Arctic Oscillation, a regularly shifting weather pattern that decides which parts of the world will see more cool Arctic air in the winter. This year, the northeast United States is seeing less of that chilly breeze; combined with a warmer climate, things were downright damp, but not very snowy.

In the future, climate scientists expect shorter, more intense winter seasons. They say that climate change is playing a role in what Mother Nature sends our way, but the data to separate out the specific influence of climate change and weather variability still isn’t there yet.

At my little town’s ski mountain, I stood in mud and slush where I had spent high school impressing the importance of the snow plow on the unfortunate eight-year-olds in my ski class before running off after work to get in as many runs as I could before the lifts closed. This year didn’t feel like winter, and it sure didn’t feel like Christmas.

The low snowfall is hurting ski areas in New England and around the country. Sanguine winter observers tend to take a fatalistic view ("If you don’t like the weather in New Hampshire, wait an hour"), but the reality is that no low temperature record has been broken in Concord, New Hampshire’s capital, in the last decade; five times new records were set for high temperatures.

The New Hampshire I grew up with, with its perfect seasons, might become a very different place in the coming decades, especially if climate change is ignored. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, enough to make the growing effects of climate change tangible for the first time. That’s an embarrassing admission at a time when natural disasters fueled in part by rising temperatures have caused real human devastation around the world and food prices are increasing, but, sometimes a problem has to hit close to home—or your idea of home—for it to truly become real.

Photo by Tim Fernholz


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