New England weather has always been fickle, but even by local standards the past month stands out as abnormally abnormal. Here in Maine, only the southernmost tip of the region saw extreme warmth, but February 2017 was still one of the warmer February’s on record.  Portland had 6 days in the 50s last month and averaged 3 degrees above normal overall.

Unusually mild weather brought about rapidly melting snow, and today we have more warmth on the way.   There is bare ground in many places during a time when snow depth is usually peaking.

Maine isn’t southern New England, but what happens to our south can provide clues as to what our own weather may look like in the coming decades.  

The first February tornado ever recorded in Massachusetts occurred this year. NOAA

In Goshen, Massachusetts last weekend, there was a tornado confirmed Monday by the National Weather Service. This is the first recorded February tornado in that state and comes on the heels of the first severe thunderstorm watch in February in the Boston area at about the same time last year.

All this unusual weather raises the question: Is this climate change?  The answer is: sort of. No one single event is climate change, but the odds of these occurrences can increase as a result of it. It’s like loading the dice. As the climate continues to change, our weather will throw us more surprises.  

No one can say if another warm February is going to occur in 2018 or 2019, but we do know the odds of such winter warm spells are going to continue to grow. The climate models forecast more extreme swings in our weather within the general warming pattern.

It’s really no surprise that we are seeing all-time monthly records for February or severe weather. Since February temperatures are on the rise and have been for over a hundred years, it stands to reason that record breaking warm days are in our future. Warmer air holds more moisture and produces more thunderstorms.

Maine’s average temperatures in February have been increasing each decade. NOAA


Another factor adding to the growing warmth is snow, or lack thereof.  While total snowfall in southern Maine has actually increased over the past decade, how our snow falls and melts has changed (I believe the increase in snowfall in southern New England is temporary). Strangely, during the past 5 years, 45% of winter snowfall has fallen in just the month of February.


February snowfall has been averaging 15 inches above normal for the past 5 years. NOAA

Typically, snow would be spread much more evenly from December to March. This erratic pattern has led to a decrease in the overall amount of winter days with snow cover. Without that cover, we lose the chilling influence of the snow and subsequently temperatures become warmer — It’s the same reason scientists are so worried about the lack of ice in the Arctic.

We won’t know for another decade or so if these changes are to become part of the regular winter pattern or not, but it is worrisome.  The $7.6 billion winter sports industry is certainly nervous.  In fact, the expansion of the Balsams resort in northernmost New Hampshire is actually banking on these changes. The resort figures that being so far north and so high in elevation will eventually allow them to corner the market on skiing and other winter sports in New England as resorts to the south go out of business.  

Snow cover over the United States is decreasing in March and April as the climate warms. NOAA

It’s not just February that’s getting warmer, either. Our winter trend is unmistakable; temperatures are rising. 

Pointing out a cold day, week, or even month like February 2015, as proof that climate change isn’t real is ridiculous. Even an A student can fail an exam once in awhile. In a generally warmer world, there will still be cold winters, just not nearly as many.

Average winter temperatures continue to warm across Maine

New England’s weather is likely going to continue to look very different in the coming decades.  The map below, adapted from a research paper in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate, tells an important story.  The authors of the paper concluded the number of sub-freezing days across the northern tier of the United States is going to dramatically decrease in the middle of this century.  This will mean less snow, more heat, and yes, likely more severe weather, even in winter.  

The number of freezing days will continue to decline through the middle of this century.

What’s occurred this month might not occur again for a few years, but rest assured, it’s just a preview of what’s to come. Much of the predicted changes are already baked into the system, It’s how this continues to unfold, long after you and I are gone, that remains the big question.

You can follow Dave Epstein on Twitter @growingwisdom