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The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Snowball Warming

Posted by | February 20, 2015

going, going, going...

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 2/22/2015.

I learned a new word this year. Subnivean, from the Latin for “under” (sub) and “snow” (nives). It’s the zone within and underneath the snowpack. It’s where we’ve all been living lately.

What a winter wonderland it was, after that first blizzard. By the fifth storm, even my four-year-old was over it. He doesn’t like the snow nearly as much anymore. It’s “cold and stingy.” It blows into his eyes. It’s buried our neighborhood skating pond.

We’d go sledding, but we foolishly left the sleds out in the yard after the first snowfall of the season, a month ago. We haven’t seen our sleds since. They’re out there somewhere, buried.

We can be forgiven our foolishness. It was T-shirt weather the day after Christmas. The lawn was visible on New Year’s Eve. (Working at the Wells Reserve at Laudholm, an outpost of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I pay a more-than-personal attention to the weather and climate.) I figured this winter was a relapse of the mellow one of 2011-2012: a dud, a bust, a fizzle.

But then: boom. According to Dr. Samantha Borisoff, a climatologist at the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University, the Northeast’s snow totals had been running 12 inches below normal until January 23. In the last three weeks, we’re 30 inches over normal. Don’t we know it.

Boston is having its snowiest February since modern records began in 1891. Ninety inches of snow have fallen there in 23 days. Most of it seems to be piled on top of everyone’s parked cars. Down East, the snow on the ground is 50 inches deep. The drifts are twice that.

Here in southern Maine, we’re in between. Small consolation. To a man with a hammer, they say, everything looks like a nail. To a man with a snow shovel, everything looks like a backache.

It’s light snow, yes, but it still adds up. When you start getting into the 4-foot range, that’s 25 pounds per square foot. And those multiple feet of snow, piled everywhere, turn into 5 inches of water, everywhere, when they melt. That’s a 25-year flood, just waiting for spring.

Nothing will be melting for a while, though. According to NOAA’s National Center for Environmental Prediction, this same pattern (“Snow. Freeze. Repeat.”) will hold through the first week of March. After that, the sun really starts shining. We will see the ground again. Mud season this year could be just as epic as snow season (just in time for our towns’ snow clearing budgets to hit Empty).

In the meantime, it’s a doozy of a winter, no doubt about it. “Where’s your global warming now?” unconvinced friends and relatives have been asking me. I could answer that Juneau, in southern Alaska, is having weather we normally associate with February in South Carolina. That the massive droughts in Brazil and California and Australia continue unabated. That there’s a hot blob of ocean south of Cape Cod that’s 20 degrees F warmer than normal, and that maybe The Blob is giving some extra “oomph” to those nor’easters that continue to barrel up from the mid-Atlantic.

But I don’t bring up those convenient truths. Instead, I just say: warm air holds more moisture, so it rains harder than it used to. The US National Climate Assessment shows that there has already been an increase in extreme precipitation in the Northeast, with precipitation rising by 71% between 1958 to 2012. When it’s cold enough, that rain comes down as snow. Why is it still cold enough to snow in this warming world? Well, it is winter, in Maine. Also, the Arctic air that normally spins as a vortex above the North Pole has gotten a little wobbly lately, possibly because of a loss of sea ice up there.

So where’s our global warming now? Look outside, I reply. It’s right there, hip deep.


Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His Sunday column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and future, winter and spring. More at

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