World’s Warmest Winter Ended Long Before Spring

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The meteorological observatory atop Great Blue Hill in Milton, Mass., has ticked off every degree for every day since 1885. In the era before balloons, forecasters launched kites from the windswept summit to capture the secrets of the atmosphere. Now they rely on thermometers and other sensors to chart the gradual, devastating warming of Massachusetts, my home state.

The scientists need instruments to do that. I just have to look up at the oaks and maples where a northern cardinal flits among the branches in the middle of winter. This beautiful bird is not supposed to be here, not in February or in March or—actually, very often at any time of the year. The same goes for the tufted titmouse, red-bellied woodpecker, and Carolina wren.

These were southern species that rarely strayed into the Northeast when I was born, 59 years ago and a few miles from the hill. Our winters just haven’t been tough enough to keep them away, and once they got to flying around up here, they liked it so much they kept coming back.

The observatory’s record books document what happened: Since 1961 the 30-year mean shows February has warmed about 2F. It may not sound like much, but it’s weakened the Bay State season enough for the cardinal and its friends.

This is my eulogy for winter. Not just in Massachusetts but across the Northern Hemisphere, which, when spring arrives on March 19, meteorologists will already have determined was the world’s warmest in the history of temperature-data collection..

Winter has become a stranger, and strange. In the last five years, I’ve dug myself out of the most snow I’ve ever seen, but I’ve also often worked in the garden in a T-shirt. I’ve chased butterflies in February. My boots have sunk into the muck of a trail that should be frozen solid as I’ve looked for cardinals darting between the bare branches of maples. Now the new coronavirus has driven me indoors in an upheaval that could be a foreshadowing of a world where climate runs wild.

Since 1961 the world’s heat has raised the water in Boston Harbor almost 6 inches. The bay used to go over its banks two or three times annually during what are called “king tides,” which occur when the sun, moon, and Earth are aligned. These days the city is awash dozens of times a year. The water got so high during nor’easters in 2018 that Boston tides recorded their first, third, and eighth all-time highs in just two months. Everyone remembers the photos in the newspaper of dumpsters floating down streets in the Seaport District.

In recent years winter has thrashed about in other ways. In 2015 more snow fell in Boston than ever before. Two years later, February was so balmy that butterflies appeared, and tornadoes tore through the central part of the state.

By trade, as a weather reporter, I talk to meteorologists, who tend to smile politely when I veer off the topics of pressure systems or computational models to talk about birds. I bother with birds because they have stories. They tell me how the world has gone a little crazy.

Of all the pain climate change can inflict, the chance to see more birds and butterflies is the least of it. Warmer air holds more moisture, bringing on more floods; weather patterns are stuck by disruptions to the jet stream, causing heatwaves and damaging streams of storms; rising oceans imperil trillions of dollars of real estate in the U.S. alone.

Investors at the American Meteorological Society meeting in Boston in January speculated that a day of reckoning is coming for financial markets. Some said they are actively considering the consequences for markets and advising clients to join them in taking action. And of course, politics has injected itself into the weather in a way it never has before.

The birds were the prophets. They first probed for homes along the Massachusetts coast, because that is where winter has traditionally had its mildest impact. When they gained a foothold there, they spread through the rest of the state.

As much as I’ve enjoyed seeing them, it’s always with a tinge of regret. The coldest season has always been my favorite. I love to hear my boots squeak their way into fresh snow while the falling flakes blot out just about every other sound. I can find peace standing under the bare branches of a maple looking at a snow-covered field capped by a slate gray sky.

I used to, quite regularly. But that was the winter I knew. My new winter pastime is looking for butterflies. The tough mourning cloak butterfly will loft through the air on its gold-edged maroon wings if the temperatures get warm enough—60 degrees or so—which it did around Boston several times deep in the winters of 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. I found mourning cloaks in two of those years.

Boston posted its first back-to-back 70-degree days in February 2017, which also delivered two tornadoes, another first.

True enough, the Great Blue Hill was covered by a thick sheet of ice thousands of years ago. That was the Ice Age, and there have been many such remarkably distinct eras since our planet came into existence. The world changes, the weather changes—it’s part of undeniable great drift of the progression of time.

But the scope and speed of the shifts over the course of my relatively short lifetime simply can’t compare. There is one witness that the most determined political argument or crackpot internet theory cannot refute: That is the Cardinal in my yard in February.

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