The Heat Is Online

Boston Sets Record for Snowless Winter

The 20th Century Weather Marks

The Boston Globe, Jan. 2, 2000

New Year's Eve marked 291 days without measurable snow, the longest stretch on record in Boston. The previous record, 274 days, was set in 1998.

In N.E., a winter wonder land

With another no-snow record, region's wildlife, people change habits

By Scott Allen, The Boston Globe, Dec. 26, 1999

Forsythias and roses bloomed at the Arnold Arboretum in November, seduced by 70-degree heat. Across New England, thousands of ducks haven't flown south because of all the unfrozen lakes and ponds here. Boston area golf courses extended the fall season until Christmas week, their fairways and greens still a vibrant green.

For the second year running, Boston has set a record for lack of snow, making today the latest date in 109 years that the city hasn't had at least a trace of snow. With regional temperatures running well above average for December and the ground almost bare even in snowmobile country, people increasingly are asking: whatever happened to Old Man Winter?

''Our normal closing date is usually first snow, but the way the weather has been going the last couple of years there is no closing date,'' said Chris Sleeper, assistant golf professional at the Charles River Country Club in Newton, which finally closed Monday - because of a shortage of help.

People across the region are subtly adapting to the milder winters, mowing lawns and painting houses deep into the fall, wearing windbreakers instead of parkas in December, keeping furnaces set low, or giving up on frosty, holiday-season ice skating. (The Metropolitan District Commission will offer free indoor skating during school vacation so children are less likely to try pond skating.)

At Central Paint True Value Hardware in Hyde Park, manager Barry Central has reduced his orders of snow blowers the last couple of years because he has grown to expect little snow in December, the key month for sales. Six out of the last nine years, Boston has not had snow deep enough to shovel until after Christmas, giving people few incentives to buy snow equipment.

''If we get snow in October or November, people see that as a threat and they get off their duffs and do something,'' Central explained. But, this year, his only buyers have been ''a few hearty souls who plan ahead.''

At the Blue Hills Ski Area in Canton, where the weather was too warm even for manmade snow on Friday, co-owner Stanley Beers was philosophical as he looked out over the bare slopes. ''You learn in this business that this is the way life is. If you can get one good year out of five, you're doing well,'' he said.

To be sure, New England still gets walloped from time to time, such as in 1997, when an April Fools' Day storm dumped 22 inches of snow. And, despite snowy holiday images in Currier & Ives prints, the ground has been bare in Boston on Christmas Day half the time this century with no clear trend toward more or less snow for the season.

''Thomas Jefferson said there wasn't as much snow as when he was a boy. That's what everybody says,'' said Robert Lautzenheiser, retired Massachusetts state climatologist. ''If that were so, there wouldn't be any snow anymore.''

But scientific evidence suggests that winters have gotten milder since the 1970s, especially in northern regions. Ice on one New Hampshire lake melts two weeks earlier than in 1967, a new study by the Institute for Ecosystem Studies determined, while a Boston University researcher found that spring in northern Maine and points north comes about a week earlier than in 1981.

The evidence extends beyond the United States. A British study shows that chickens lay eggs earlier because of the warmer springs, while German researchers found that Europe's current growing season is 10.8 days longer than in the 1960s.

In Boston, National Weather Service records show that 70 percent of the winter months have registered above-average temperatures since 1980, including 14 that were at least 5 degrees above average. And snow has come later than normal in Boston for 14 of the last 20 winters, including the last two years when the first snow has been at least six weeks late.

''What is clear is that the temperature has been warming for the last 20 or 30 years,'' said Ranga Myneni, a Boston University geography professor who has studied the shortening of winter north of the 45th parallel. ''Snow cover is retreating.''

New England wildlife seems to be changing along with the weather, as Southern birds increasingly find New England winters to their liking - once rare species, such as the little yellow Carolina wren, are now permanent residents. And migratory birds put off their journey south, helping birdwatchers compile record Christmas bird counts this year from Sturbridge to Athol.

''If water doesn't freeze, you get a lot more duck species,'' said Mark Lynch of the Massachusetts Audubon Society in Worcester. ''They don't want to leave if they don't have to.''

On the other hand, some animals have been deceived by unseasonable warmth, such as the record 233 sea turtles that washed up, paralyzed, on Cape Cod in November and December. The animals apparently delayed their migration south and, when temperatures dropped, they were ''cold-shocked'' and needed extensive rehabilitation.

''I would say that biology is responding to the warming,'' said Myneni.

Exactly why winter seems to have lost some of its sting in the Northeast remains a matter of uncertainty, in part because local weather is so variable. Meteorologists attribute the snowless streak and December temperatures averaging 7 degrees above normal to La Nina, the name for unusually cold temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that affect weather worldwide.

But scientists say the milder winters also are consistent with global warming caused by the massive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to human activities such as burning oil and coal. The carbon dioxide acts like a greenhouse roof, trapping heat on the Earth's surface.

So far, the planet's average temperature has risen by about 1 degree Fahrenheit since 1900, with 1998 and 1999 the two warmest years on record for the United States. If current trends continue, the average temperature will rise another 3.6 degrees by 2100, according to a prediction of the 2,500-member International Panel on Climate Change.

James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, equates human-induced global warming with gradually ''loading the dice'' so that heat or other extreme weather becomes more likely. At the local level, weather continues to vary; but, on average, there are more heat waves and droughts.

This month, environmental groups released a wall- sized map illustrating what they said was evidence that the planet has entered the era of global warming, which included such extreme weather events as 15 straight days of temperatures above 100 degrees in Dallas last year, northern New England's ice storm in 1998, and damage to coral reefs in Australia.

But scientists say it is risky to attribute individual weather events to global warming, including a snowless December in Boston. Instead, people should look for more sustained trends such as the melting of glaciers in Alaska and Antarctica for evidence.

''We are really just at the point where [global warming] is beginning to be marginally noticeable'' at the local level, said Hansen, who has developed a ''common sense climate index'' to measure when people can detect climate change.

By Hansen's calculation, the climate in Boston has not yet warmed enough for a change to be perceptible, and winter temperatures, while high compared to the 1970s, are no higher than they were during several winters in the 1950s.

Still, the missing snow of 1999 - today marks a record 286th day in a row that there has not been a trace of snow at Logan Airport - has ordinary people from golf pros to hardware store managers asking if we are witnessing the beginning of the age of global warming.

If this is global warming, moreover, many people in New England don't find the prospect too terrifying. Golfers love the extra two to six weeks of golf, while people who work outdoors find their lives are a lot easier in winters like this.

''Every Sunday in church I pray for more good weather,'' joked Charlie Madden, vice president of Modern Continental Construction, responsible for almost half of the Central Artery project. He estimated that his crews work roughly 20 percent faster when they don't have to wear gloves or shovel snow.

However, scientists warn that this winter's cheer could turn to gloom as people recognize the downside of the extra warmth from increased coastal storms to duller fall foliage to less maple syrup because nighttime temperatures don't get cold enough.

''Most people won't be able to perceive it year to year. It'll be more like when they're older, they'll look back and say, `We used to have the greatest sugar maple displays in my day. We don't have that anymore.' ... And they'll be right,'' said Brown University biologist Steven Hamburg.

Chart with story: Average Boston December temperature jumped from 33.7* in 1872 to 40.6* in 1999.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 12/26/1999.