Goodbye, Winter

This winter has elicited no shortage of inconveniences, discomfort, and complaints, and it has now been deemed the most “miserable” on record for 30 years. It’s no wonder most of us can’t wait for it to end. But instead of wishing away these last weeks of winter, perhaps we should be using this time to relish the kind of deep cold that once characterized Minnesota winters, and only strikes us as anomalous now because of the warming temperatures of the past few decades. Since we may not see this kind of winter again in Minnesota, should we take a moment to bid it farewell?

Kenny Blumenfeld thinks perhaps we should. A climate scientist who teaches weather-related courses at the University of Minnesota and Metropolitan State University and works closely with Hennepin County Emergency Management on weather hazards awareness and planning, Blumenfeld (who is also a friend and former colleague) has a deep appreciation for winter. He describes it as a character, rather than a setting – one that “controls us by dictating what we wear, where we go, what we do, and even our moods.”

Blumenfeld is currently working on a documentary about winter in Minnesota with St. Thomas professor Alec Johnson, and has interviewed many Minnesotans about their attitudes toward winter for the film. He says people are split on the nature of winter: some refer to it as a hero, others a villain. For some, it’s a man (Old Man Winter), and for others a women. Some love it, some hate it, and some merely tolerate it; still others find ways to exploit it for financial gain. Among all these differing interpretations of winter’s character, only one thing is certain: winter itself is changing.

Minnesota winters are warming faster than winters in any other U.S. state, with a temperature increase of 1.24 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1970. Blumenfeld says that “if winter was a patient, and if instead of having normal vital signs, its vital signs were the amount of snow on the ground or the number of days under zero, all signs would point to winter coming to the end of its life here. Winter is in significant change – whether you say it’s dying or just changing, you can’t escape it.”

These changes have deeper implications than the extent to which they will impact our individual experiences of winter; they will affect entire ecological communities, ultimately changing the landscape as we know it. Blumenfeld wonders how this might challenge our collective identity: “If we lose the winter, which is part of our identity as Minnesotans, and if we lose the landscape, which is also our place identity, where does that leave us?”

Such changes also have real environmental and economic consequences. Blumenfeld cautions that no matter where you are on the global warming acceptance-denial spectrum, “if your municipality, your agency, your industry, or your livelihood is in some way tied to a particular state of ‘normal winter,’ you need to have an expectation of change, which is basically the shortening and the weakening of winter, built into your long term planning, so that you can adapt to the changing conditions rather than trying to react to them after they’ve already happened.”

Our winter this year has been so frigid because we are stuck on the cold side of a weak and wavy jet stream that has kept the region in a nearly continuous feed of cold, Canadian air. There is some evidence this phenomenon is tied to a loss of Arctic sea ice, but scientists are still investigating other possible factors at play. 

Blumenfeld knows this winter has been hard on many of us, but he hopes we can appreciate what we are witnessing: “This has been a real winter, an old-fashioned one, and we have earned the right to bore future generations with stories about it."

Posted in Energy & Environment | Related Topics: Climate Change 

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