It’s February in Massachusetts, but you wouldn’t know it without a calendar. On Thursday, temperatures rose to a stunning 62 degrees, breaking a daily temperature record, on the heels of a record-breaking warm January.
Welcome to the new normal for New England winters, where increasingly, maple syrup producers are tapping trees over a month early, ski resorts and skating rinks are opening later or not at all, and T-shirt weather is arriving before Presidents’ Day.
It’s a pattern playing out across much of the United States as greenhouse gas pollution heats the planet, but New England in particular is a hot spot, warming more quickly than the global average.
Now, climate change is ending winter in the region as we know it, experts say, putting wildlife, economies, and cultural traditions at risk.
The balmy winter weather can feel like a gift — an opportunity to take a long walk or bike ride or enjoy a spontaneous happy hour. But it’s also a stark reminder of planetary devastation.
“The climate I lived in as a kid is long gone,” said Stephen Young, a professor of sustainability at Salem State University. “The climate that my students grew up in is also gone.”
“It’s astounding,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science at Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge-based nonprofit focused on science advocacy.
This year was no exception to the trend. December was unusually mild throughout New England, and seven states, including all six in the region, experienced the warmest January on record, federal data show. A brief record-breaking cold spell struck early this month, but as quickly as it arrived, the winter weather slipped away.
It’s a pattern that will continue and even accelerate as climate change progresses, a 2021 study led by Young warned.
“This current winter will become the norm in the near future and it will eventually be seen as a cold winter,” Young said this week. He added that a recent state climate assessment warns that by 2070, Massachusetts’ climate conditions will look similar to those currently seen in the much warmer state of North Carolina.
As New England’s winter temperatures rise in the coming decades, the region should expect major disruptions, Young said. His 2021 paper, for instance, cautioned that the changes could take a toll on maple syrup production and other agricultural products, and that in many years, skiing and other winter recreation will be possible on fewer days, making winter sports businesses more expensive to run.
Signs of the new normal are everywhere. Maple sugaring season, which usually begins in late February or early March, is sometimes starting in January, producers say. Ponds have failed to ice over, delaying skating seasons at Walpole Pond and Bartlet Mall Frog Pond. Ski resorts have been forced to rely more on artificial snow — or even suspend operations for weeks, as was the case for the popular Mad River Glen resort in Waitsfield, Vt., this year. And this month, three ice fishermen died after falling through ice in Vermont — a state where historically ponds have been frozen solid in February.
The winter warmth is also reshaping the region’s natural ecosystems, said Richard Primack, a Boston University biology professor who studies the effects of climate change on plants and animals.
Primack, who has lived in Newton his entire life, said those effects are easy to see on his walks through the Webster Woods he has known since he was a boy.
“In the woods, I see the changes which are occurring this winter quite dramatically,” he said.
Wildflowers, like delicate white snowdrops and brilliant yellow aconite, are beginning to flower several months early. Other foliage, like the skunk cabbage native to the region, is already in full bloom.
“Normally that plant would flower in late March or early April,” Primack said. “It is truly unbelievable.”
These ecological changes can pose concerns for public health. Amid early blooming seasons, for instance, allergy seasons have gotten longer. Milder and shorter winters also create a perfect environment for ticks, which can carry a host of dangerous diseases, including Lyme disease. Research shows ticks are starting to breed, develop, and grow in population earlier in the year.
“When I was growing up, ticks were very rare, but now they are much more common, even around this time,” said Primack.
As New England winters have warmed, snowfall has also decreased dramatically. Another paper by Young found that between the winters of 2001 and 2017, the region lost an average of 6.2 days where snow covered the ground. That number is expected to increase as the world warms.
The lack of snowfall is contributing to the region’s warming, Young said. Snow reflects the sun’s rays back into space, but with less snow, more sunlight is absorbed by the ground.
“As we get less and less snow, we end up absorbing more sunlight heating the earth, which melts more snow, and a reinforcing feedback loop happens,” he said.
This doesn’t mean New England will never see winter snowstorms. There is always natural variability in weather patterns, so some years will be warmer than others. And the climate isn’t shifting in a uniform manner. In fact, oscillations between temperature extremes — “global weirding,” as some experts call it — are another hallmark of climate change.
The region is seeing more sporadic precipitation. As a result, overall snowfall is becoming less consistent throughout the winter, but now, the region is seeing more isolated storm events that bring a large amount of snow all at once, experts say.
The biggest factor in how much winters warm in the future is our own actions, said Ekwurzel.
“It’s huge. It’s everything,” she said.
Thanks to past emissions, experts say some amount of future global warming is inevitable. But by curbing emissions immediately, humans can limit its severity.
“This is a critical decade for the transition,” said Ekwurzel.