The Year Without a Winter?
by Mary Thill
A couple of weeks ago I found myself walking near Oseetah Lake on top of a frozen bog, the substrate of a snowless snowmobile trail. The season has been so irregular—bare ground, ice, slush, borderline rain and some occasional, blessed snow—I’ve hardly skied.
Evidently I’m not the only one whose pattern has been disrupted by this warm, snow-parched winter. Black bears are wandering, migratory birds aren’t migrating, chipmunks are popping up, and deer are sticking to summer territory.
“Bears have been out and about so far this winter. My guess would be that the only ones that are really denned up are females that are pregnant and giving birth,” says Charlotte Demers, a wildlife technician with Huntington Wildlife Forest in Newcomb. “We had a really good beechnut crop last year, so my guess would be that the bears are fat and happy. Thermally and energetically they’re really not gaining anything by denning up right now so they’re still just walking around.”
Typically Newcomb has two feet of snow on the ground this time of year, but Demers reports that the norm this January and February was just nine inches—still deeper than most of the Adirondacks. “I’m sure the deer are going, ‘Yippee!’ This is going to be awesome for deer because we figure fawns have about a 90-day energy supply, and most of our winters go more than 90 days…. But this winter I think the deer are coming through quite well. We’re speculating that some just didn’t bother going to winter range yet.”
Most surprising to Demers was a chipmunk a student saw in late February. In Huntington Wildlife Forest records, which date back to the 1930s, there has been only one other February chipmunk sighting, in 1975. They normally spend the winter burrowed underground in a semi-torpor, nibbling cached food. (The heavy beechnut crop may have led to extra litters over the summer and fall, so perhaps the youngest didn’t have time to gather enough food, Demers hypothesizes.)
She’ll be interested to see how a lack of snow affects the survival of other small mammals, insects and soil microbes that are usually insulated against frost.
On New Year’s Day in Saranac Lake, I heard a chickadee’s singsong fee-bee, the mating call we usually hear in March. People around the Adirondacks have reported robins and waxwings all winter, and birders are watching yellow-rumped warblers that stayed on the shore of Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain rather than fly south.
Nonplussed by a lack of skiing, I’ve found myself turning compulsively to adirondackweathersite.com. “This winter is littered with the carcasses of meteorologists and weather hobbyists who have bet against warm,” the site’s meteorologist Darrin Harr, who lives in Indian Lake, wrote recently.
It turns out the same phenomenon that made last winter so cold and snowy is making this one warm and snow-weak. The Arctic Oscillation is called the “wild card” of winter weather because it’s so difficult to forecast in advance. As the atmosphere sloshes back and forth over the North Pole, it affects the northeastern U.S. profoundly.
When the high-pressure system trends southward, as has been the pattern most of this winter, the Adirondacks and the rest of the eastern U.S. experience warmer-than-average temperatures. This is called a “positive cycle.” Conversely, when high pressure oscillates back over the Arctic, frigid air is drawn down into the low-pressure over our region. Last winter Adirondack snowfall was bounteous, thanks to one of the strongest “negative cycles” in 60 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Throughout the early and mid 1990s, a steady positive-phase Arctic Oscillation brought a string of mild winters to the Northeast, but in recent years the climate system has varied year to year. You can see a graph of the annual pattern at the NOAA website. Skiers and other impatient snow-lovers can check its daily pattern here. And obsessive winter-trackers can also check NOAA’s Northeast snow-depth map.