Mar 4, 2024 - Energy & Environment

March begins with extreme weather, climate events after America's "Lost Winter"

A firefighter works to extinguish a blaze in the Texas Panhandle.

Firefighters extinguish hotspots on Saturday along the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Miami, Texas. Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar/Bloomberg via Getty Images

March has barely begun, and the West is coping with a ferocious blizzard, while Texas is battling its largest wildfire on record.

Why it matters: These extremes are occurring against the backdrop of a record warm U.S. winter of 2023-24, and milestone-setting global warmth as well.

Zoom in: With climate change, long-term trends are often hidden within the noise of day-to-day weather. And then there are moments when those trends become painfully obvious, like a new reality has set in.

  • The last 10 days may be one such period, with a season-defying heat wave sweeping much of the nation; an historic Texas wildfire that has a burn scar so large it is clearly visible from space, and a blizzard so severe that it has cut off mountain communities in California's Sierra Nevada range.

The intrigue: But the larger picture cements a view of a changing climate that, for many, is more lasting, front of mind — and disconcerting.

  • For tens of millions of Americans, this was the winter that wasn't. And it also wasn't the first such recent occasion, which means it can't be easily dismissed as a fluke.

The big picture: Cold and snow failed to grip the Upper Midwest, the Great Lakes stayed overwhelmingly ice-free, and cities in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast struggled again to see a single six-inch snowstorm.

  • Residents of the colder regions in the U.S. are referring to this past season as the "Lost Winter," marking a possible turning point in how people view climate change's role in one of the seasons that most clearly define a region.
  • If so, it would be in keeping with the long-term trends. Winter is much of America's fastest-warming season, with the coldest regions warming the fastest.

Between the lines: Even by the standards of significant long-term warming, cities in the northern tier of the country demolished their previous records for their warmest winter this year, according to preliminary data.

  • For example, Fargo, North Dakota's mean temperature this winter was 14°F above average, while in the Twin Cities, the winter average temperature was 10°F above average. (Meteorological winter lasts from December through February.)
  • Typically, seasonal averages are only broken by a degree or two, at most.
  • Locations in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic also saw their warmest winters this year, or somewhere in the top 5.

Caveat: Major snowstorms can, and still will, happen in a warming world. Yet snowfall trends since 1970 are clearly trending downward across large swaths of the Lower 48 states.

  • Climate Central, a science research and communications nonprofit, analyzed snowfall patterns since 1970 at 2,041 locations across the country.
  • It found that 64% of locations now receive less snow than they did in the early 1970s, while 36% of locations have seen snowfall increase.

What's next: Climate projections are nearly unanimous in showing a retreat of winter snow cover across the U.S. in coming decades, first in lower elevations, then gradually higher.

  • For example, in the Northeast, there has been an increase in storms that bring rain rather than snow, and a projected northward drift in the rain/snow line over time.
  • In the West and Southwest, shifts in the timing and extent of winter snowfall and spring snowmelt have major water resource implications, numerous climate studies have shown.

The bottom line: Climate change had been slowly chipping away at winter's grip in much of the country. That may just be more obvious now.

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