Snow was my first love. From November’s first flakes and the season’s first blizzard, to unexpected midnight dustings and late March blasts, snow fell frequently and happily on my childhood in western Massachusetts. I never complained about the unshoveled, post-blizzard darkness of my paper route, nor about scrambling over icy drifts en route to school. In the evenings I read in front of our wood stove, captivated by thoughts of Narnia’s endless winter.
Snow gives us a new world. It gives us (not least) a day off to contemplate it. Snow bestows silence: deep snowfalls “spread their peace,” said Saint-Exupéry. Above all, snow gives meaning to the great indoors. Thoreau wrote that in winter, “warmth stands for all virtue.”
Coming in from the cold requires going out. I loved to build fires as dusk and snow began to fall; even more, I loved to stagger with an armful of logs back to a house aglow between an ivory landscape and an ice field of stars.
Fortunately, despite worries about a warming planet, no one is predicting the end of snow anytime soon. Some cold places will see more snow, because warmer air can carry more moisture. In the Northern Hemisphere, snow coverage this past December was the greatest since records began in 1966, Rutgers University’s Global Snow Lab reported. But Dr. David Robinson, a climatologist at Rutgers, warns that year-to-year fluctuations and regional differences can deceive casual observers. In general, he says, there has been an “overall decline in snowfall.”
Other studies echo that conclusion. The United States Global Change Research Program’s recently released draft National Climate Assessment reports that “Overall snow cover has decreased in the Northern Hemisphere, due in part to higher temperatures that shorten the time snow spends on the ground.” The report also notes a decline in the frequency of very snowy winters and in snow accumulations in the American West, and said we can expect more rainstorms “in previously snow-dominated settings.” A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council warns that without action on climate change, the snow season in the Northeast will be halved by 2100.
I have some sympathy for those who say good riddance to snow. Snow, when it overturns our normal routines, can be its own reward: a Berkshire friend’s “blizzard action plan” involves music and joyful bread-baking. But disrupted transportation and the challenges that winter weather can impose on older people are no joke.
Whatever your feelings for snow, its evanescence will cost you. Frank Lowenstein, a climate specialist with the Nature Conservancy, told me: “the snowpack out West is how we store water for the summer for half the country. And it’s disappearing.” That means less summer water for cities, agriculture and recreation. It means more wildfires. Changing ecosystems will also affect wildlife, while less snowy landscapes absorb still more heat from the sun. The National Climate Assessment expects heat-related deaths to increase more than winter-weather-related fatalities will decline.
Nor should we forget how often and how beautifully snow has fallen upon America’s cultural landscape. Think Rockwell and Frost, of course, Bing Crosby and Emerson (“the mad wind’s night-work/The frolic architecture of the snow”). It’s not as if Melville compared the color of his whale to a cold winter rain. We may not associate snowboarders with quiet contemplation of winter’s formal elegance. But note the words chosen by Protect Our Winters, a snowboarder-founded group that encourages winter sports enthusiasts to “save a season that fuels our passions.” The National Ski Areas Association has already enrolled about 20 ski areas in its Climate Challenge program (slogan: “Keep Winter Cool”).
If you’re still unmoved by what we’ll lose as the snows melt from America’s lands and imagination, then join me on a Dickensian tour of the ghost of winter future — also known as Britain.
Snow in Britain is beloved but rare: beloved because it’s rare. The Oxford scholar Robert Douglas-Fairhurst reminded me that a few unusually snowy winters, coincidental with Dickens’s childhood, infused “A Christmas Carol,” “The Pickwick Papers” and, ultimately, the modern British psyche with blizzard-laden fantasies out of all proportion to actual precipitation, at least of the frozen kind. If Dickens got Britain’s fictitious snowball rolling, think of Dylan Thomas, the winter weather at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, and “The Snowman,” a deeply beloved children’s book (the film was introduced by David Bowie, whose recent surprise single a British reviewer compared to unexpected overnight snow).
Last weekend’s widespread snow across Britain produced scenes as joyful and exuberant as ever. Still, not all Britons love their rare winter guest. Stephen Bayley, a critic and writer, despises snow. Mr. Bayley fingers Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, for bringing Christmas trees to Windsor, and “with them a sort of Teutonic forest-worship which, in the popular imagination, was associated with snow.” And Dr. Douglas-Fairhurst notes that British snow, like most love affairs, “tends to bring as much misery as pleasure.” Britain’s inability to clear snow from roads and rails is legendary.
It’s also suspicious, given the joyful day off from work and school that typically results. But whatever the truth behind the snowy London streets undisturbed by “snow ploughs,” the contrast between Britain’s snow-blind love and the damp browns of the country’s typical winter landscape offers a chilling warning to Americans taking pleasure in yet another season of sidewalks that don’t require shoveling. Tennyson — “ring, happy bells, across the snow!” — reminded the Victorians that it is better to have loved and lost. True for snow? Americans may know sooner than they might wish.
Mark Vanhoenacker is a writer and pilot who lives in New York City.