Climate Change

How is winter changing?

A warmer winter is preventing ice from forming on the Great Lakes, which have steadily lost ice cover since the 1970s.

How is winter changing?
Samantha Deleo / AP

How did Americans prepare for Christmas in December 2022? By bundling up. 

"Five to 10 minutes outside and your skin can start freezing," said Kelly Serr, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service. 

Here’s how the freeze developed until the coldest day — December 23. During that time, the rest of the planet wasn’t very cold. In fact, big parts of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia experienced temperatures between 10 and 20 degrees warmer than usual.

Since 1970, winter in a majority of areas have warmed by three degrees, according to the scientific non-profit Climate Central. And their research shows in three quarters of the areas they analyzed, winter is the fastest warming season, the coldest days are getting warmer. Overall, winters are getting warmer, with less snow. But when there are winter storms — climate change may favor really big storms. 

The jet stream plays a big role. It's a river of air flow which separates cold air in the north from warmer air in the south 

above it lies the polar vortex. Usually its air swirls in a circle more than six miles up, and arctic air remains confined by the jet stream. But recently scientists discovered that since 1980, the polar vortex has more and more often been stretched into the shape of an oval or barbell.

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Scientists said a warmer arctic reduced sea ice and snow in Asia, but was also causing the vortex to stretch, according to a report in Science Magazine.

The result? The jet stream is occasionally meandering far south across North America. And it sends cold blasts across the continent. 

A warmer winter is preventing ice from forming on the Great Lakes, which have steadily lost ice cover since the 1970s. 

That’s created lake effect snow and rain. 

Out west, USDA data shows how the season to accumulate valuable snowpack has shrunk. Snowpack stores water for the summer. The snowpack season is up to a month shorter than before. It's depriving states of meltwater in the hottest months. 

Winter sports like skiing are up against new challenges.  The National Ski Areas Association reports there were 529 ski areas operating in 1992.  

Three decades later, that number had plummeted to 473. And the resorts that are open are increasingly making their own snow, says Chuck Randles, with Wilmot Mountain in Wisconsin.  

"Snowmaking is absolutely critical to our business. Here at Wilmot, we have received very little natural snow, and we're open with almost 50% of our terrain here in mid-January — despite not having any snow. That wouldn't be possible without snowmaking," Randles said.

The future of winter is warmer temperatures, less snow and less ice: anew reality whether you’re a skier or just a kid who loves the joys of winter.