Snowmen have not stood in city parks, nor snow angels lain on the ground. Toboggans sat idle and shovels collected dust. Pavements and pedestrian crossings have been suspiciously navigable.
There had not been measurable snowfall in New York City for 329 days. That all changed on Wednesday morning when the city awoke to a meagre 0.4 inches.
It is the furthest into a winter that New York has ever gone without snow, according to records that date back to 1869. And the city has never had so little cumulative snowfall this late in the season. The last time it snowed in New York — defined as at least 0.1 inches measured at the weather station in Central Park, Manhattan — was on March 9 last year.
“When I look at your snowfall, it’s pathetic,” Mark Wysocki, the New York state climatologist, said earlier this week. “Central Park should have 13 inches of snow by now, and you’ve had zero.”
The simplest explanation is that it has been a historically warm winter in the city. “You’re running about 7 to 10 degrees [Fahrenheit] above average on the highs,” Wysocki said. “Central Park is on track to see the second-warmest winter on record.” Globally, temperatures have risen at least 1.1C since pre-industrial times.
“It’s hard to get snow, and for it to stick to the ground, with temperatures that warm,” said Samantha Borisoff, a climatologist with the Northeast Regional Climate Center. “Climate change makes it more likely to see this level of warmth and has already led to warmer winters and more precipitation falling as rain instead of snow.” There has indeed been more rain than usual this winter.
But the relationship between climate and snow is complex. Other parts of the country and the state have been hammered. The jet stream tended to steer storms through the Midwest or the Ohio Valley. And Buffalo, in western New York, received more than 60 inches of snow in December, fuelled by moisture from the unfrozen Great Lakes to its west.
Meagre snowfall creates more than just an aesthetic effect. A lack of snowpack can affect groundwater levels and stream flow come spring, which can affect flood or drought potential. And a lack of demand for skiing and snowmobiling can depress tourism dollars.
On the other hand, New York City is saving salt and cash. “We have some 700mn pounds of salt on hand, and of course, our salt doesn’t go bad,” said Belinda Mager of the city’s sanitation department, which is responsible for snow removal. “Less snow saves some money . . . Any snow-budgeted money not spent gets returned to the city’s general fund.”
The number of freezing days in New York is expected to erode steadily in decades to come, according to forecasts from NOAA’s Climate Program Office.
But the city will surely see more snow again, although perhaps not as much of it. “Major snowfalls are still possible in a warming world, as long as there’s enough cold air to support it,” Borisoff said. “However, the overall snow season is expected to get shorter.”
And it is not too late for more meaningful snow in New York this year. Wysocki pointed to the so-called Storm of the Century in 1993 that dumped double-digit inches of snow on New York City, which blew into town in mid-March.