As ocean temperatures off Florida reach hot tub levels, parts of Europe wither as the mercury passes 100 degrees, and Beijing recovers from intense flooding that killed at least 20 and forced mass evacuations, a new study finds the fingerprints of climate change in a totally different place: snow.
Since 2000, the number of days with snow cover globally has declined as Earth’s climate warms, and southern New England has lost nearly a month of its annual snow cover — among the steepest losses globally, according to the new study, which was published in the journal Climate.
“Right before our eyes we are seeing winter disappear,” said Stephen Young, a professor of environmental sustainability at Salem State University, and author of the new study.
What’s happening in the region is part of a larger trend of snow cover loss around the world. According to the study, the snow-covered portion of the Earth lost as much as 5 percent of its area between 2000 and 2022 — an area more than nine times the size of France. That does not include Antarctica or Greenland, two areas that are experiencing rapid warming and melting. And certain areas, like New England but also Siberia and northeast China, are experiencing more rapid declines than others.
These losses aren’t just bad news for skiers and snowboarders.
When snow disappears, it exacerbates how hot the planet gets. That’s because when the sun shines and hits snow, roughly 95 percent of that energy gets radiated back into the atmosphere. But without snow cover, that energy is instead absorbed. In the spring and summer, the lack of snow in northern latitudes, like Siberia, northern Canada, and Alaska, is especially problematic because parts of those areas have historically been covered in snow year-round. The Earth’s climate depends on those places to regulate the temperature globally. But now, increasingly, the area covered by snow is shrinking.
What it amounts to, Young said, is a tipping point. “The Earth is about 17 percent covered in snow and ice, and that has a really strong cooling effect on our climate,” he said. “What this paper shows is that that cooling effect is disappearing.”
Elizabeth Burakowski, a climate scientist focusing on snow and climate at the University of New Hampshire, said the study’s findings ring particularly true given the lack of snow this year.
“This past winter in particular — 2022 to ‘23 — was devastatingly low snowpack for a lot of the southern part of the Northeast,” said Burakowski, who was not involved in the new study. “For me, as a climate scientist, when I see a winter like that, it’s a harbinger of what’s to come if we don’t act now.”
Burakowski is part of an alliance of scientists working with the advocacy group Protect Our Winters, which promotes policies aimed at staving off climate-warming emissions while trying to turn lovers of the outdoors into climate voters.
The list of what’s at stake goes on and on. Besides contributing to additional warming, decline in snowpack can wreak ecological havoc — forcing beloved species to expand their ranges northward in search of cooler temperatures and bringing pests, like ticks, to areas that did not used to have them. It can devastate industries spanning from maple syrup to skiing, make pond hockey and ice fishing a thing of the past. It can upend weather systems and trigger effects that aren’t yet understood.
The findings in the latest study from Young are based on analysis of data from NASA’s Terra satellite, which has observed global snow cover almost daily since 2000. Young said he compared the average seasonal and annual snow cover, and took steps such as averaging multiple years and looking only at change that wasn’t random so he could take a more conservative approach to the data and ensure anomalies did not skew it. He also took into account other factors, such as cloud cover data.
Mark Serreze, an Arctic climate scientist and the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center who was not involved in the new study, said Young’s findings are in line with what scientists have been measuring and expecting.
“What the paper points out is that these changes are very regional in nature,” said Serreze, noting that in some places — like certain parts of the Arctic — warmer temperatures can lead to increased snowfall, because warmer air can hold more moisture.
“When we think of climate warming, you can’t think of this as just some linear response to increased greenhouse gas levels,” Serreze said.
That’s particularly clear when looking at data in the new study related to North America, a continent that has the second-largest extent of snow cover but had the least amount of net snow cover loss. Except when you zoom in to New England.
Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut have each seen staggering losses in snow cover since 2000, with Massachusetts losing roughly 27.5 days of snow cover, and Rhode Island and Connecticut each losing more than 30.
In this region, precipitation amounts in winter have not declined much — and in some cases have increased. But instead of snow, it is falling as rain. The shift of just a few degrees is all that’s needed to turn a snowstorm to rain, and between rising global air temperatures and the extreme warming in the Long Island Sound and the Gulf of Maine, that temperature shift is already happening.
A 2021 study to which Young contributed found that New England is warming at a significantly faster pace than the planetary average and that the rate is expected to accelerate with continued greenhouse gas emissions. That study found that between 1900 and 2020, New England warmed an average of 1.83 degrees Celsius (3.29 degrees Fahrenheit), while temperatures on the rest of the planet rose an average of 1.14 degrees Celsius. Most of that warming has occurred since the 1960s as the burning of more fossil fuels resulted in more heat-trapping carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere.
Jeremy Jones, a professional snowboarder who is the founder and chief executive of Protect Our Winters, said that what gives him hope is that society has many of the solutions needed to address climate change — it just needs the political will.
“The reality is, as heartbreaking as it would be for chairlifts not to be spinning, if the world gets to that place, the least of our worries are going to be about whether we can slide on snow or not,” he said. “Because the ripple effects of a snowless winter in places that traditionally have winter — it really throws everything out of balance.”
Correction, Aug. 4, 2023: An earlier version of this story included an error describing Jeremy Jones. He is a professional snowboarder and the founder and chief executive of Protect Our Winters.