By Michael Caduto
In the minds of many, the winter of 2022 officially started with our first major snowstorm on December 15. Up to that time the ground remained notably devoid of white. Central Vermont used to receive its first measurable snow sometime in late October. Due to global warming, however, the first significant snows have been arriving later in recent decades.
Looking out across the early-December landscape of browns and grays, the fate of our local plants and animals was concerning. At a large farm pond near our house, Canada geese lingered well into December, seemingly oblivious to the cold and despite the scarcity of food. Ravens gleaned the scatterings of cow corn chopped while autumn colors still framed the sky. Phoebes hung around much later than usual, as did the last hummingbirds of the season, which continued to sip nectar from our feeders until September 15—some 10 days later than their usual autumnal departure for points south. Bears continued to feed later than usual, which delayed when they entered their winter dens as well as the onset of the safe period for putting up bird feeders that would not be marauded by our ursine neighbors.
We have a coyote whose habitual nocturnal hunting regimen crosses the lines of our regular perambulations in and around our old farm. I often find fresh coyote scat deposited in the same location each morning. It is clear from the ground up tiny bones and leaden wads of matted fur that this coyote has been subsisting largely on meadow voles; the hunting made easier by a lack of snow.
Long term meteorological data gathered by Appalachian Mountain Club researchers shows that the number of winter days with snow cover has decreased by three weeks during the past century. AMC climate models estimate that, due to global warming, by 2100 the amount of forest lands in the Northeast that are covered by snowpack in midwinter could diminish by 95 percent. Observations during the past sixty years by the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire demonstrate that the depth of the snowpack is also declining.
When the ground is bare during the winter, plants and animals are largely unprotected from cold damp weather and extreme low temperatures. In his classic book, Life in the Cold, Peter Marchand refers to snow as the “…thermal blanket under which much biological activity takes place during the winter.” Snow cover provides “…the salvation of many plants and animals that depend upon it for protection from the cold.” Because the insulative value of different forms of snow varies, snow needs to be around 20 inches deep on average in order to protect animals living beneath it from the extremes of winter cold swirling above. In all but the most severe cold days, the temperature beneath snow of this depth tends to remain steadily around 32°F.
Living in this subnivean (under the snow) environment insulates and provides cover from predation. Small mammals, such as mice and voles, who spend their time tunneling beneath the snow in search of food, are fairly well protected from the sharp eyesight and keen hearing of predators, such as the red fox, barred owl and coyote. Snow cover also decreases the damage and die-off of tree roots caused by exposure to extreme cold. Hubbard Brook research has revealed that growth decreases by 40% among sugar maples whose roots are exposed to severe cold when there is no snow pack—a drop that continues for several years.
An insulating blanket of snow protects the plants and animals beneath from extreme cold temperatures and other severe winter weather, such as freezing rain. Photo: Michael J. Caduto.
Despite the many profound impacts of climate change on the lives of our wild neighbors, we usually focus on the impacts on humankind: melting glaciers and rising sea levels, weather extremes that have become the new meteorological norm, hurricanes that are setting new records for arriving late into autumn, as well as storms noted for their duration and intensity. Witness what is happening to residents of coastal areas who continue to live according to settlement patterns established during weather norms of the past, even while climate change-induced disasters rain down upon them. Along some parts of Florida’s overdeveloped eastern coastline, multitudes of buildings are now abandoned because they have been undermined by catastrophic erosion from recent, record-breaking hurricane-induced tidal surges and accompanying wind and waves. In some parts of southwest Florida, people and wildlife suffered similarly tragic and heartbreaking fates recently when their homes and habitats were wiped out and entire regions made uninhabitable by Hurricane Ian.
As global warming marches on, people, plants and animals are all in the same proverbial boat, riding the ups and downs that come with the waves of change that wash over a warming planet. Those of us who spend much of our personal and professional lives working on education and action that encourages everyone to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions, and those who are keen observers of the natural world, do not need sensational headlines to remind us what is occurring during this Anthropocene era; the signs are ubiquitous, both in the headline-grabbing events of our climate times, as well as in the multitude of local and gradual changes that pervade our surroundings and impact the lives around us.
Why do so many people care so much about these changes? What motivates us to work toward solutions to climate change? How do we deal with our dystopian nightmares of a warming world, be they during wakeful hours or in the dead of night? Despite the harm that humans have wrought upon the planet by our overuse of resources and sheer numbers, most people sincerely and deeply care about the beauty and awe inspired by the natural world.
Earth’s celestial dance with the sun has once again passed the inflection point that marks the start of the winter season. Anticipating the promise of longer days, our thoughts turn toward the celebrations of light, life and love. It is a time to reflect upon how the lives we live can be brought into balance with the wondrous world that we have inherited from our forebears, and the tenuous future that we are charting for generations to come. This is our charge, and our gift: to answer the existential call to action and opportunity to fight global warming in order to show all forms of life with whom we share this fragile biosphere just how dearly we hold that love. As snow is our witness.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Visit SustainableWoodstock.org for specific actions and steps you can take in your daily life to fight climate change. “Climate Action” is found under “Get Involved” in the website banner, at this link: https://www.sustainablewoodstock.org/get-involved/climate-action/