Damn this horrible weather! What a nasty winter we’re having, eh?
There has been a lot of complaining about the cold and the snow this winter. You can’t open your Facebook feed without hearing about the “unusual winter” and people’s personal gripes with the weather in their area.
The polar vortex that dunked much of the country into unusually cold weather for a few weeks was, admittedly, quite an occurrence. And there have been awful stories of places like Atlanta, where they just don’t get snow, and people were stranded for hours and days in massive traffic jams caused by panic over a dusting.
Of course, we Northerners laugh at them, but the total meltdown of a city after receiving two inches of snow is more due to suburban sprawl and traffic-flow problems than any reaction to the snow itself.
But this winter wasn’t unusual. Or rather, it was, if the “usual” we’re talking about is our already-changed climate, which has caused significantly warmer winters for the past ten years. Winter temperatures in New England where I live are four degrees warmer than they were, on average, 30 years ago. The whole planet is 1.4° warmer since the Industrial Revolution. That’s a lot, actually.
Eagerly awaiting spring is different from hating the very existence of winter. I often encounter people who seem delighted with winter temperatures in the 50s and 60s, when we have them. What they’re enjoying is the demise of our planet.
There’s a phenomenon at work here that’s been called the “shifting baseline.” What we grew up with seems “normal” to all of us. When your little hometown falls victim to suburban sprawl and they put up a Walmart in the field you once played in, you feel violated. Your baseline was the old town. But for the kids growing up there now, the Walmart has always been there, and they don’t miss the field.
Your baseline tells you what’s “normal” for you, but that’s always going to be subjective, specific to you. For me, winter temperatures frequently in the 50s and 60s in Boston are abnormal, but for my kids they will be normal. Likewise, they will never know that there used to be abundant hemlock trees in New England, before they were killed off by the hemlock wooly adelgid, a non-native pest. They will remember skiing in Vermont and Maine, but their grandchildren may not.
If we pay attention only to our experience, and don’t follow the hard data of science, we may not notice climate change at all. It’s happening fast, but still too slowly for most of us to comprehend without stepping back for a broader view. We might have an odd feeling of fear and loss that tells us something ominous has occurred. But much can vanish before our eyes and not be missed. See “The End of Snow” in the New York Times.
— Andree Zaleksa, JP Greenhouse