Warming Winters

Ari Glasser, Guest Writer

In Vermont, we can sometimes feel disconnected from the most immediate effects of climate change. We aren’t threatened by dangerous heat or facing evacuations due to imminent wildfires or hurricanes, like many others in our nation are.

We read reports citing “points of no return” or our “impending doom” if temperatures rise just a few degrees. But what’s two degrees, we think. The difference between a cold winter day and, well, a slightly less cold winter day. No big deal, right?

The reality, however, is very alarming. From 1970 to 2022, average winter temperatures in Burlington rose by a staggering 7.1°F. That’s higher than any other place in the country. Burlington’s longest winter cold snap each year has also shortened by at least 5 days.  

But why are Vermont’s winters warming so quickly? One source may be the cold Arctic air, or rather the lack thereof. Cold air from the Arctic interacts with warmer air farther south, creating the jet stream, a pattern of winds moving throughout the northern hemisphere, especially the eastern US. This jet stream drives the weather patterns and cools areas like New England.

However, the Arctic is warming nearly four times faster than the global average, in a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification. The main reason for this is the loss of Arctic sea ice. 

This ice has a high albedo, meaning it reflects most of the incoming radiation from the sun. When the sea ice melts due to rising temperatures, it reveals the dark ocean below it, which has a low albedo, absorbing most of the sun that hits it and warming up even further. This further warming causes more ice to melt, exposing more low-albedo ocean which heats up, melting more ice and creating a constant loop.

The result of all this Arctic warming is that the difference between Arctic air and Vermont air is less significant, which weakens the jet stream, making all sorts of extreme weather conditions more likely. Heat waves and warmer temperatures, however, are made much more likely, as Vermont weather patterns are powered by drastically warming Arctic air.

These warming winter temperatures also pose risks to individuals and Vermont’s economy as a whole. Lake Champlain has not frozen over for five years, due to it being too warm, and just last winter, four people were killed while trying to ice fish in areas that were not completely frozen. 

Warming temperatures also mean that snow on ski mountains melts much faster, leading to resorts having to create artificial snow to remain open, a process that is time-consuming, expensive, and burns fossil fuels.

Winters in Vermont are warming much faster than many people realize, and with potentially highly damaging effects. So next time you think that our state is cool and unaffected, think again.