In the Boston area and other parts of Massachusetts, the snowfall disrupted morning commutes and prompted school closures. But really, it wasn’t that big a storm; less than an inch accumulated in Boston since snowfall began late Monday night, according to the National Weather Service.
“The event today is not unusual,” said Greg Carbin, the chief of the Forecast Operations Branch at NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center.
What is unusual, Carbin said, is how little snow Boston has seen throughout this winter. Between 1991 and 2020, the city saw an annual average of 37.7 inches of snow from December through February. But this meteorological winter, which ended Tuesday, Boston has seen just 11.5 inches, said Bryce Williams, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Boston. (Though winter doesn’t officially end until March 20, meteorologists measure the season looking only at December, January, and February).
“It’s a very run-of-the-mill storm,” Williams said. “But this winter in general, we’ve had very few snowstorms ... so it’s gotten a lot more attention.”
Yes, some parts of the state did see more snow pile up. The highest totals were reported in Plainfield (8 inches), Holyoke (6.8 inches), Southampton (6.8 inches), and Charlton (6.7 inches). But even those numbers would be little to write home about during a typically snowy winter, Williams said.
Scientists haven’t yet looked into what role climate change played in this relatively snow-free winter. But we do know that New England is warming faster than the rest of the planet, with winter temperatures rising especially quickly — twice as fast as summer temperatures, a 2021 analysis found. As a result, the region is more often seeing rain instead of snow, according to federal data. And when snow does fall, it’s less likely to stick.
Since 1970, Boston winters have warmed by 3 degrees. Meanwhile, Burlington, Vt., winters have warmed by a stunning 7.1 degrees — the highest rate for any municipality in the country, a study found last year. As the planet warms, temperatures will continue to tick upward, experts say.
On the whole, snow coverage is decreasing across New England. One study found that between the winters of 2001 and 2017, the region lost an average of 6.2 days where snow covered the ground. That study used a NASA satellite which only answers a yes or no question: Is there snow on the ground today?
“But it doesn’t measure the depth of the snow,” said Stephen Young, a professor of sustainability at Salem State University, who worked on the research.
But climate change isn’t just warming up winter.
“It’s really more complicated than that,” said Judah Cohen, a climatologist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research.
Winters are certainly warming, but at the same time, when storms do occur, they can drop more snow onto the ground. And swift cold snaps, like the one Boston saw in February, are becoming more common — changes Cohen suspects are related to shifts in the polar vortex, or areas of low pressure and cold air that surround the North and South poles. Research also shows that a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, meaning a hotter New England climate can lead to bigger, if less frequent, storms.
That means snow accumulation totals may not change much and in some cases may even increase according to the Massachusetts Climate Action Tool, developed by scholars, state agencies, and climate NGOs. But when it does accumulate, snowpacks are melting more quickly.
Perhaps due to these complexities and year-to-year variance, winter snow accumulation totals span a wide range. For instance, the 2014-2015 winter season, just eight years ago, saw 110.6 inches of snow on the ground in Boston — the highest accumulation since record-keeping began in 1891.
Still, this year was one of Boston’s five least-snowy winters since record-keeping began in 1891. And since the record-breaking winter of 2014-2015, Boston has only hit the 30-year average snowfall amount once, last year.
Massachusetts is forecast to get a reprieve from snow on Wednesday, and Thursday could bring rain to the state as the mercury rises to 50 degrees. More snow could be on the way on Friday, but forecasters aren’t certain.