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Report highlights oddball weather

Winter weather is becoming more prone to extremes over the long term, and the trend stands to affect everything from outdoor recreation to the economy, the National Wildlife Federation said in a new report.

Oddball winter weather
Tom Stay of Baudette, Minn., fishes walleyes from a boat on the Rainy River near Birchdale, Minn., on the U.S.-Ontario border in this January 2006 photo. The Rainy River should have been frozen solid but a prolonged warm snap caused portions of the river to lose their ice cover in early January. It's just one example of the kind of "oddball" winter weather cited in a new report titled "Oddball Winter Weather: Global Warming's Wake Up Call for the Northern United States." The National Wildlife Federation ...

Winter weather is becoming more prone to extremes over the long term, and the trend stands to affect everything from outdoor recreation to the economy, the National Wildlife Federation said in a new report.

Released Thursday, the 12-page report, "Odd-ball Winter Weather: Global Warming's Wake-up Call for the Northern United States," takes a look at what it calls the "seemingly peculiar effect" of climate change on winter weather.

"When you look over several decades, it is clear winters are getting shorter and warmer in most areas," said Amanda Staudt, climate scientist for the NWF and author of the report. "Lakes and rivers are not freezing up like they used to, and snowpack is declining.

"If global warming continues unabated, temperatures will get warm enough that snowfall will become less and less common."

The NWF assembled a panel of experts, mostly scientists, for a conference call Thursday morning with reporters across the country to unveil the report, which coincides with the often-acrimonious debate on climate change legislation now under way in Congress.

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Growing skepticism

The new report also comes at a time of increasing public skepticism about global warming and its impact on climate. The Washington Post on Thursday cited results from two polls, one from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press and another from Yale and George Mason universities, which both showed waning interest in the global warming issue.

Several of the online comments to the Washington Post story echoed that sentiment.

Staudt said she often hears from people questioning how climate change can be occurring when parts of the country are enduring heavy snowfalls and frigid weather.

"What this means in terms of snow depends on temperatures where you are," Staudt said. "More areas are getting more winter rain instead of snow, others more heavy snow -- particularly in areas with lake-effect snows and areas like the upper Great Plains and upper Midwest.

"You can't draw any conclusions about global warming based on any particular year."

But the long-term picture, at least in some places, appears to tell a different story. John Magnuson, emeritus professor of zoology and limnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, highlighted a graph in the report charting ice cover on Lake Mendota in Madison as an example.

Since 1855, the trend for ice cover on the lake has shown a gradual, but steady decline, from more than 100 days in the 1850s to less than 80 days today. And in one extreme case since 2000, the lake had ice cover less than 20 days.

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Analyzing the trend, Magnuson said the odds of shorter periods with ice have increased about 20 percent, while the odds of long durations have decreased by 20 percent.

"People tend to pay so much attention to the present, but if you put the present year in the context of this slow change, what you see is significant change in the duration of ice cover," Magnuson said. "We've often used the word sense of place for people who like winter and like winter activities either economically or recreationally. I remember the year we only had the few weeks of ice cover and I was really sad. For two reasons: One, I didn't get out on the lake, and second, it reminded me the world we live in is changing."

Signs of change

David Robinson, chairman of the geography department at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said the data he's gathered in the past 40 years shows a similar decline in how long snow remains on the ground, especially later in the winter as spring approaches.

"We're seeing snows melting earlier," Robinson said. "We're not exactly sure of the cause, but we certainly see evidence of this loss."

Chip Knight, the NWF's project coordinator and former Olympic slalom skier, said he's seen the effects of the erratic weather firsthand. The struggle Vancouver, B.C., Olympics organizers are having with lack of snow for next month's skiing events are just one example.

Snowmaking can fill the gap if temperatures are cold enough, he said, but that means added costs for businesses trying to stay afloat.

"Families are also finding it harder to keep up with these rising costs, and it's hard to plan their vacations around this increasingly variable weather we're encountering," Knight said.

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Closer to home, Suzanne Thomas, whose family has operated Buena Vista Ski Area near Bemidji for 60 years, hadn't seen the report. But she said it seems as if winter's arrival is getting later, though she hasn't noticed any difference in the spring.

"I think that maybe the last five years, I've noticed our snowmaking operations don't begin as early as normal," Thomas said in a telephone interview. "It's been quite mild in November, and then it pushes us back into opening even in December. In the good old days, we were always open for Thanksgiving."

Looking ahead

Rutgers' Robinson acknowledges weather can vary significantly even within a particular year. But if temperatures in the future climb as some models predict, he said more wintertime precipitation falling as rain and less as snow could be expected.

"This isn't something we're going to see overnight, but as we look over the decades, this is what we're beginning to see and what we anticipate seeing in the future," he said.

It "behooves us," he said, to plan for changes.

Despite the inevitable skepticism, Staudt, the report's author, said the National Wildlife Federation believes climate change is the "single largest" threat to wildlife.

"It's important to address the cause, emissions, and start thinking about how wildlife and our habitats are being impacted," she said. "And we need to start taking safeguards."

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: WEATHER
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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