In New England, Questions Swirl over Mild Winter
ATOP MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. -- The weather station on top of Mount Washington, New Hampshire, is built for severe conditions, and with good reason.
The top of the 6,288-foot mountain gets about 42 feet of snow per year and in January -- the coldest month on the mountain -- the temperature averages 3.9 degrees Fahrenheit.
But this winter, which has been unusually warm on top of the mountain and across the U.S. Northeast, the Mount Washington Observatory is having some trouble with some of its systems, which just aren't designed for mild weather.
It turns out that the 20-foot pole the staff uses to clear ice from the observatory's windows is not quite long enough when there are no snow drifts at the base of the tower to climb on.
The unusual warmth has also made forecasting trickier, the meteorologists said. They noted that a local ski area recently called to complain after temperatures unexpectedly rose above freezing overnight, so that the resort's snow making equipment wound up spraying water onto the slopes, instead of snow.
"It's not supposed to be like this," said Ken Rancourt, who has worked at the observatory since 1979 and serves as director of summit operations.
Across New England, skiers, ice fisherman and others are adjusting to the warmer conditions. They are not alone.
Last year went down as the warmest on record in the United States, according to data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Tuesday. Five states -- New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, New York and Minnesota -- recorded their warmest Decembers on record, while the country as a whole was 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer on average in 2006 than over the last century.
Winter this year has been mild across much of the United States, with the notable exception of Colorado, which has seen several heavy snowfalls and at least one major avalanche that buried three lanes of a major highway.
Scientists say this year's unusual weather cannot necessarily be blamed on global warming. An El Nino warming pattern in the Pacific Ocean and little cold air coming down from Canada are the main culprits. But if the world continues to warm, this year's anomaly eventually may become the norm.
"You cannot say, 'Ah-ha, this is happening because the world is warming,' but this is what you would expect to happen," said James McCarthy, professor of biological oceanography at Harvard University. "This is the sort of effect that one would expect in a warmer world, that we would have the kind of winter we're having now."
Many scientists believe humans are contributing to the global warming pattern by releasing into the atmosphere heat-trapping greenhouse gases, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels.
An October study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists forecast that, if current emissions patterns continue, average winter temperatures in the Northeast could rise by 5 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. The worst-case scenario would make a typical winter day in Boston in 2099 feel like a winter day today in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, some 900 miles to the south.
"We're seeing real changes in our climate," said Cameron Wake, a climatologist at the University of New Hampshire. "The climate in this region, in New England, that our children and grandchildren will experience will depend fundamentally on the decisions that we make today."