Opinion

Is winter weather changing in northern and central Maine?

A year ago, some meteorologists examined intercontinental atmospheric and oceanic trends and predicted another cold and snowy winter for northern New England.  This was a few weeks after the 80-degree weather we had in early September of 2018. For Aroostook County at least, they nailed it. Our snow period lasted a good six and a half months. 

This reminds me of a time when I was teaching a watershed management course in west Texas about 15 years ago.  The students wanted to better understand the concept of climate change and what that would mean for them. I dove into the Journal of Geophysical Research and other such peer-reviewed journals on climate science, and among one or two other things, what I consistently found for the U.S. was: 1) the West was to get drier, and 2) the East was to get wetter.  I knew then that we would either move back to Alaska, where water is abundant, or back to the east coast. Water is critical to most life as we know it, and I would prefer to not be without it. 

It seems that the published climate scientists were probably right 15 years ago, and the recent meteorologists as well.  Our previous three winters have been well above the long-term average snow total, which is perhaps a new normal, for now.  Lately, southern Aroostook has seen more liquid moisture at the tail end of the snow events compared to central and northern Aroostook.  In central Maine, that has often meant a good deal of rain following the snow. 

Moisture on top of snow followed by freezing temperatures can cause a crust to form that can mean different things for different critters.  For caribou in the Arctic, it can mean that your food source is locked under ice, and that can negatively affect maternal body condition and newborn survival in the spring.  

For Aroostook County, it’s good if you are a subnivean dweller (below the snow) with a crust that keeps your predators away, or if you are a deer that can now be supported underfoot well enough to eat at a level that is higher than normal.  It’s bad if you are that predator of subnivean creatures, or if you posthole through the crusty snow while your predator runs on top. 

We will be watching to see if our winter wetness in central Aroostook trends more towards rain in the future.  Some years have different weather than others, and it is only long-term trends that can speak towards climate.

A lot of critters welcome the snow, and for some it can be a hindrance.  Many birds migrate to open waters of our eastern sea-board, and some go to the Bahamas and even South America.  A good snowpack keeps a bear sow with yearling or newborn cubs comfortable and cozy all winter. If you have never dug a snow cave or shelter out of a pile of snow, you might be surprised at how warm it can be.  

Hope you enjoy the snow while it’s here.  Time to wax the skis and register the sled.  

Shawn Haskell is a regional wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

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