Cold December?

Cold December?

CMG-1020592I wonder if people are worried.

It’s December. Do you remember December? There may not always be snow on the ground, but before Christmas approaches things up high things grow white. The air cracks, dry and cold. The skies are grey, hard as flint, and flurries are common.

This, what we are having now, is not December.

I thought about this in October, when summer seemed unwilling to end, when the leaves held way past normal. And I thought about it again in November, when the “Indian Summer” stretched week after week. But it seemed my concern was maybe jumping the gun. Maybe, like last year, winter would rear itself forcefully and all my worrying would be for naught.

But now it’s December. Mid-December. But the sun still carries warmth. The nights seldom to dip to freezing. The mountains are looking like late October. Christmas is almost here, and “white” seems very unlikely. Some days smell distinctly of spring. Something feels off, way off, a long way from normal. I’m worried.

I hope it’s not just me.

Not that I’m complaining exactly. The warm days have been marvelous, and it’s nice to wear a T-shirt when the calendar recommends two fleeces and a puffy jacket. But this is bigger than personal comfort. When things get weird like this it starts to feel like maybe the Earth’s orbit is off-axis, like maybe the planet’s tilt is spinning aloof. What the heck is going on, when April and December switch?

There is politicized discussion/debate about global warming and the role we play in it. I’m not looking to wade into that. Or the equally politicized conversation about whether or not we should be taking steps to counteract it. Like so much today, those issues are too muddied to approach openly. Each side has its staked-out position, and every conversation devolves into a shouting match. Opponents lob rhetorical grenades across a divided no man’s land. I have no desire to walk headlong into that.

But this December feels weird. Like September, the hottest on record. And October, also the hottest. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will release November numbers this week, at which point we’ll see if the trend holds for last month too. The December data won’t be out until January, at which point perhaps the hills will be white and the 55 degree days will seem like a distant memory but, no matter what the final numbers settle out to, something is askew with this month.

And regardless of the data, global temperature rise will remain a schism point, a political fracture. Here in New Hampshire it’s hard not to be pleased with reduced home heating bills, fewer mornings spent scraping the car windshield and a few extra days of tolerable temperatures.

But the Mount Washington Valley winter economy is built on Attitash, Wildcat, Cranmore, Black Mountain and King Pine. Bretton Woods and Great Glen. Bear Notch and Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring, snowmobile vacations and ice climbing trips. Snowshoers and winter hikers. Winter is the unique gift the North Conway area offers, and right now we can’t offer it to anyone. Without 32 degrees Fahrenheit and below, the driver that marks the fourth season sputters.

And it isn’t just the fourth season: Foliage is getting harder to predict, harder to plan around, as temperatures buck and weave. Replacing cold nights with strings of warm days takes a toll on the colors. Springtime warmth, which drives maple sap skyward, is also erratic of late. And rainless summers have an effect on river levels, meaning an excursion on the Saco can be more of a walk than a paddle. So much of what makes the Mount Washington Valley thrive is built upon its seasonal fluctuations, built on a consistency that has allowed entire industries to develop and thrive. What happens if the ski slopes are brown on Christmas week? Right now that doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

And that is the beginning. From there, what happens to the rest of the valley economy without the tourist crowds those recreation opportunities drive? What happens to the hotels and restaurants, to the ski shops and the outdoor stores, to the outlets that entertain non-skiing family members? They will suffer the same weather pinch.

And if those businesses suffer, how long will it take for the impact to be felt down the line, at the local doctor’s and dentist’s office, at the accountant’s? In this valley everyone’s livelihood is tied to tourism, and tourism is tied to the weather. Even the newspaper prays for snow.

This is not an abstraction; the ski industry has been wrestling with this problem for decades. Snowmaking, once a small part of mountain operations, became a focal point after winter storms proved insufficient to coat the trails by Christmas. Today almost every Northeastern mountain can paint the whole hill white with guns, but they need cold temperatures. What if those are gone too? What if December truly is the new autumn? I’m worried.

But in truth, there is no use in worrying. If that is the trajectory, if winter is truly on its way out, then it is a boulder bouncing downhill — there will be no turning it around quickly.

And if not, then I’ve just written an entire column for nothing.

But.

But the conversation about rising temperatures is not an abstract political argument about ice caps, polar bears and Polynesian islands. It is a conversation about this valley, about an economy built on seasons, a conversation about our jobs. If global warming is real it will hit us where it hurts. And this December it is feeling very real.

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in December 2015.

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