Men clear snow from the front of a residence during a snowstorm in Somerville, Massachusetts, the week of Christmas back in 2010. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

A new analysis of weather data shows that in a few regions, it has become less common to see snow over the holidays.

He's a feature of so many holiday gatherings: the creaky codger, reminding you how in his day he had to slog through miles of chest-high snow to buy the Christmas ham. But is that memory correct—is modern December snowfall punier than the robust, puts-hair-on-your-chest powder of yore?

No and yes, according to a new analysis of weather during Christmas week across North America. In much of the country, the number of days with holiday snow on the ground has actually grown over the past several decades. But in a few regions—notably the Pacific Northwest, Montana, Nebraska, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and around the lower Great Lakes—it's become much less common to see snow frosting the grass over winter break.

Rutgers University and NOAA arrived at these findings by contrasting snow records during 1966-1989 and 1990-2013. Here's the map they made with the data, showing regions with a 25 percent more-frequent snow cover today in blue and 25 percent less in brown:

The map may appear a bit misleading in its suggestion that the years are getting colder and snowier—NOAA and Rutgers clarify this is not the case, and that "singling out a particular winter week for scrutiny isn't especially meaningful as an indicator of long-term climate change." Snow has been thinning through much of the Northern Hemisphere, especially during spring months. The researchers explain:

When it comes to meaningful indicators of how snow has changed over time, the scientists say, it's best to stick to monthly or seasonal averages.  By those indicators, says David Robinson, who leads the Rutgers snow lab project, the pattern is clear: Northern Hemisphere snow cover is declining significantly at the end of the cold season (spring/early summer).

This pattern of snow disappearing earlier in the spring makes intuitive sense with respect to global warming. As temperatures rise, the impact on snow cover is likely to show up first in those seasons where the temperature is just barely cold enough for snow. Reductions in snow can also feed back on the atmosphere, amplifying warming. Where winter temperatures are well below freezing, however, temperatures will have to rise more significantly before snow cover is affected.

The vanishing powder is on view in these other NOAA maps, showing in brown the places have lost up to 60 snow-covered days a year (compared to a 1998-2010 baseline). Blue regions have packed on more snowy days, but you'll have a hard time finding them in the right-hand depiction of spring 2014. Notes the agency: "In April, Eurasia set a new record low [for snow-cover extent] since satellite observations began in 1967."

NOAA/Ross Brown

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    Reviving the Utopian Urban Dreams of Tony Garnier

    While little known outside of France, architect and city planner Tony Garnier (1869-1948) is as closely associated with Lyon as Antoni Gaudí is with Barcelona.

  2. photo: An elderly resident of a village in Japan's Gunma Prefecture.
    Life

    In Japan’s Vanishing Rural Towns, Newcomers Are Wanted

    Facing declining birthrates and rural depopulation, hundreds of “marginal villages” could vanish in a few decades. But some small towns are fighting back.

  3. Tourists walk along the High Line in Manhattan, New York City
    Life

    The Beauty Premium: How Urban Beauty Affects Cities’ Economic Growth

    A study finds that the more beautiful a city is, the more successful it is at attracting jobs and new residents, including highly educated and affluent ones.

  4. Transportation

    On Transit Policy, City Leaders Have More Power Than They Think

    State and federal policies often get in the way of transportation planning, but they don’t have to. A new field guide shows how cities can take charge.

  5. photo: Helsinki's national library
    Design

    How Helsinki Built ‘Book Heaven’

    Finland’s most ambitious library has a lofty mission, says Helsinki’s Tommi Laitio: It’s a kind of monument to the Nordic model of civic engagement.

×