The real weather effects

As I sit here on what seems like the umpteenth snow day of this winter of our discontent, I ponder what the world was supposed to be like just a decade or so ago. I’d have thought by now the polar ice caps would be melted because the earth would be so warm and I’d be enjoying my tropical beachfront property right here in Salisbury.

Snark aside, one has to wonder if the climate is really changing. For the past several winters, we have endured at least one significant snow event – something I don’t recall dealing with in the first few winters I’ve lived down here. The big blast of snow we had in 2010 was really the first major snowstorm since I’d moved here in 2004, but that was the first of several winters this decade one may consider harsher than normal. This year, though, takes the cake. (While this piece is about two decades old, the average snowfall of about 10-15″ is consistent with the Wikipedia-supplied average of 9.9″ for Salisbury.) Today’s storm threatened a foot of snow, but will likely fall into the 4-6″ range, adding to a winter where snowfall has far exceeded the norm.

If you believe as I do that the sun dictates our climate, we may be in for a long series of cold winters. It seems like as plausible an explanation as any other. But what does that mean for the average family?

First of all, I define how cold a year is by the number of heating degree days used. This is a very simple calculation: the average temperature for a calendar day subtracted from a constant temperature of 65 degrees. I was taught this concept in my architectural training, and it’s a handy way to determine how cold a period of time is. From this site, I found that over the last decade we’ve generally run an average of 4,315 heating degree days, with the years of 2003-2005 being a little colder than average; on the other hand, 2011-2013 were comparatively balmy because we finished under 4,000 heating degree days. So the fact we are running 19% ahead of 2013 on degree days through February really means we may be getting back to a longer-term average, polar vortex or not.

But degree days don’t equate to snow; I tend to believe colder winters aren’t generally as snowy. Usually the biggest snowstorms brew in from our south, which implies a warmer flow of air colliding with cold air from the west. A more westerly clipper system isn’t usually a big snow producer here.

Now snow, in and of itself, isn’t such a big deal aside from perhaps a one- or two-day disruption in routine. And all this snow is great for some people: those who have plowing businesses on the side (or get overtime from the state/local government for plowing) are making out like bandits this year, and ski resorts are cheering these storms on as well. Kids get to play in the snow. But on the other side of the ledger: tourism could be down a little at spring break because kids may have to make up all those wintry days missed, local governments have to dig into their contingency funds to secure more salt for the roads, and so forth. Overall, the effects are fairly minor.

Conversely, cold weather is difficult for most families on a budget; in particular, the need to find more money for electricity, natural gas, or heating oil. And while Eastern Shore summers can be torturous without air conditioning, they’re more manageable than dealing with a cold spell without heat. That can be deadly.

And on a long-term axis, a cooldown may make food more expensive as yields decline and certain staples become harder to find. For example, over the course of several decades, orange production in Florida has retreated southward due to too-frequent bouts of freezing weather. Obviously some of that migration comes from pressure from development, but orange groves aren’t a fixture in the state’s northern half anymore. By the same token, the area where wheat production is possible becomes smaller as a large percentage of the world’s land mass lies in northern subpolar regions where a few miles of retreat turns into a lot of lost acreage.

So the question is whether this unusually lionlike start to March is an anamoly or a sign of winters to come. Florida may seem like a better and better bet to many who get tired of shoveling year after year, but there are only so many people it can support and food has to be grown by someone someplace. Maybe those broken chunks of polar vortex which have swirled in our direction will go someplace else next winter, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find that all who warned us about global warming were the only ones creating the hot air – it sure wasn’t the bright sunshine.