Its been a quite a while that we have all been far flung for field work term. But term has started now, and we all have to catch up with what has been going on.
Our first week back at Bennington was heralded by the first major snowstorm that occurred here since we left for Christmas in December. To say that the New England winter was mild this year is an understatement. Remember the first few days of term, when the sun was out and the temperature was pleasantly balmy? Well, weather like that has been the norm this winter. Aside from our recent rash of winter weather, there has been no significant snow in Bennington since November, and temperatures have been a lot warmer on average than in past years.
The anomalous weather this winter has been met with mixed feelings from within Bennington’s full-time community. For those who enjoy the winter and its associated pastimes, the weather has been a complete drag. Families that go on frequent winter excursions to ski and sled have found themselves sadly denied their favorite winter activities. The mild weather has also had local maple syrup producers concerned about the effects of warmer weather on the sap flow of the sugar maples. The early-spring flow of maple sap from the roots to the branches of the tree is stimulated by the transition from colder to warmer conditions. The concern is that the warmer conditions will inhibit the quantity and quality of the sap.
Others, however, have expressed relief and pleasure at the mild weather. The mild winter has relieved Vermonters of the discomforts and even dangers of severe weather. Nobody had to dig their car out of snowdrift in below-freezing weather this winter. Heating costs went down, and driving conditions were fine all winter. These perks had many of the people that I talked to praising the conditions of the past months.
The thought on my mind when I learned about the warm winter was: are these mild conditions a result of climate change? Are we, even now, experiencing the affects of an altered regional climate; one that will grow continually more unrecognizable over the coming decades? Unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest that this is true, but also that climate change is just one of several factors that may have influenced the temperatures of late.
A report created for the state of Vermont on the effects of climate change states that regional temperatures have already increased on average by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1970’s, and are project to continue increasing another 1 to 3 degrees by the end of this century. This change, increasing into the future, means shorter and warmer winters, less snowfall, earlier springs (which also means an extended growing season), and more frequent and severe storms. Hurricane Irene, of this past August, has been often cited as an example of such a storm.
However, there is another, less dire explanation for this particular year’s mild winter. The global climate has patterns of its own, which create variations in yearly weather. Obviously, anomalously mild winters and wet summers existed before climate change. The 2011 winter weather was affected by what is known as the La Niña Southern Oscillation, which is characterized by cooler winters in the Northeast. Last year was a La Niña year, and it was cold and very snowy. The antithesis of La Niña is known as El Niño, which is characterized by warmer and drier winters. There is some evidence to suggest that, with climate change, El Niño events will become more frequent and pronounced. The warmer than average winter could be in part due to this dynamic.
Just because this winter was extremely warm and mild, doesn’t mean that all winters will now be this way. The climate is complex, and our seasons are still defined by non-anthropogenic factors. If climate change continues to affect our winters, it is likely that what we experienced this year will be the norm by the middle of the century, not next year. It is still not a hugely optimistic view, but at least we can know that we will almost certainly ski and sled and dig our cars out of snowbanks again in future winters.