There is no question that it still gets cold in a warming climate—just this past October, multiple locations across the Northern U.S. broke cold and snow records—but the winter season is less cold than it used to be a half-century ago. Furthermore, it is the fastest-warming season in 38 out of 49 states (including Kentucky, Ohio & West Virginia). This may sound inviting to folks that love warmer weather, but a warming winter comes with consequences.
We have, along with Climate Central, analyzed winter temperatures across the country. Of the 242 cities analyzed, 98% (236) had an increase in average winter temperatures from 1970, with 86% (204 of 236) of those cities warming by 2°F or more.
There is also a warming trend in the number of winter days reaching above-normal temperatures. Of 242 cities, 74% (179) reported an increase of at least 7 days—one week—of above-normal winter temperatures between 1970 and 2020.
Overall, winter temperatures increased the most around the Great Lakes and Northeast region, which is consistent with where the winter season is warming the fastest.
A warmer winter can have negative impacts on humans, especially economically. For instance, a warmer winter threatens winter sports, like snowboarding and skiing, because of less snow accumulation and conditions that are too warm for snowmaking. According to a 2018 report on the 2015-2016 skiing and snowmobiling season, these industries generated $11 billion to the U.S. economy and supported over 190,000 jobs—often in rural areas like West Virginia. The winter sports industry will be negatively impacted by climate change. The severity of those impacts will be driven by the amount of greenhouse gas emissions now and in the near future.
In addition to the winter sports industry, a warmer winter can also impact fruit production. Cherry, apple, and peach trees require a minimum number of winter chill hours before they can develop fruit in the subsequent spring and summer months. In a warming climate, the winter’s chill period is decreasing and could eventually become insufficient for fruit development in the areas where the trees are currently planted.