Not your parent’s normal

On May 4, NOAA updated the three-decade period of ‘normal’ climate to include the ten years from 2011-2020. So when weather forecasters talk about temperatures being above or below normal, it will now include the five hottest years in the U.S., all recorded since 2012.

Your kids’ normal winter isn’t yours. And yours was not your parent’s, as you can see in the graphic below:

Annual U.S. temperature compared to the 20th-century average for each U.S. Climate Normals period from 1901-1930 to 1991-2020 (
Annual U.S. temperature compared to the 20th-century average for each U.S. Climate Normals period from 1901-1930 to 1991-2020 (

The NOAA graphic above summarizes by comparison different generations of ‘normal’. Human norms aren’t static- we can get used to a seasons without winter, like frogs being boiled slowly. That’s the dismaying prospect in “Why Americans Might Never Notice Climate Change’s Hotter Weather“.

If you wax your skis (and you really should), it’s important to pay attention to the particulars of snow crystals, moisture, and temperature. Details about snow matter, and they’re highly dependent on weather and climate. From a 1995 article in The Atlantic, “In Praise of Snow” describes some of the qualities of natural snowmaking, and how the economy of our western states depends on a regular wintertime snowpack.

Climate also impacts how each person’s body reacts to cold weather. Although some may be better-adapted (ahem) by nature to cold weather, everyone can adapt at least partially through exposure (such as through activity outdoors). A couple more pieces in The Atlantic, from 2018’s “Why So Many People Hate Winter” and 2015’s, “The Benefits of Being Cold“, are about these adaptations to cold weather.

Reality is the options we have

Changing one’s mind is hard and takes energy (see Decisions, decisions); no living creature wants to extend themselves unnecessarily. As we see with heuristic traps, creatures with sufficient brainpower can continue a familiar pattern of behavior despite clear signs that things are not the same.

To get a taste of the transition to a new normal where humans are involved, listen to reporter Nat Herz on changes to winter in Anchorage in December 2019: “Too Much Ice in Anchorage” (link opens a new window).

On the heels of yesterday’s NOAA announcement UAF climate specialist Rick Thomas tweeted that Fairbanks’ climate is no longer considered ‘sub-Arctic’:

All life on Earth occupies a narrow band of habitability. Snowfall and glaciation are likewise bound by latitude and elevation.

Life on a reef

The pine bark beetle is no longer kept in check by long and cold winters in North America, allowing it to attack the reserves of conifer forests across the continental divide. Pine trees simply have nowhere to go that’s safe. Recently, Australia and India have been experiencing heat waves with sustained temperatures above 110˚ and 120˚F, costing thousands of human lives and severely impacting the population of birds, bats, and koalas. Without access to a more favorable range, it’s adapt in place or die.

The social/cultural reef of skiing requires a predictable pattern of wintertime weather and behavior. NOAA norms now include a 15-year timeline to provide norms closer to current-day changes. The pandemic forced schools to get experience with remote learning, so there may never be another snow day. If wintertime as we perceive it is disrupted enough, skiing will become a curiosity practiced by a hardcore of oddballs in simulacrum (virtual or ski tunnel). Those who adapt to the new normal will ski in some form, while everyone else will adopt different activities.

Bill McKibben has an on-point appraisal of my favorite sport in an article at Vermont Sports:

If sports were like species, cross country skiing would be high on the endangered species list

Bill McKibben in Vermont Sports Jan. 7 2020

But because McKibben’s local trail system makes snow, he can be skiing in early November, and have a better guarantee of skiable conditions.

It’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature

The sport of skiing can adapt up to a point by salting, storing, and making snow. Ultimately it might take constructing competition-scale ski tunnels, but if it came to that, who would care enough to ski or watch skiing competition? Because the fundamental rationale for skiing- using our capabilities to move in nature, whatever the weather and season- will have been lost.

Part of the joy of cross-country is going somewhere where you can ski 30 miles without going on the same trail twice and you feel like you’re going somewhere. … With this, it feels like track, as opposed to a lifestyle.

Sam Evans-Brown, Concord (NH) High Nordic Coach

“If cross-country skiing requires snowmaking, is it really cross-country skiing any more?” from the Concord Monitor

The consequences of warmer winters are already disrupting habitats and ecosystems worldwide, far beyond the petty desire of skiers. The worst of it is avoidable, just barely. We’ll take action when winter is understood to be part of how things grow and live now, not just a decorative or recreational gesture to the past.

Warning signs are growing stronger, and heuristic traps worsen the outcome. There’s a lot riding on whether our heads can listen to nature. I hope we do. The outdoors gives me something wonderful in all four seasons, but I prefer to my winter with snow.