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Changes in winter

Climate projections displayed in this map represent the average of the minimum air temperature (degrees F) for December, January, and February. Colors change from blue to purple as air temperatures cross the freezing threshold (32 °F) and winter precipitation changes from snow to rain. Projections show the years 2010-2080 using current data, or one of two IPCC greenhouse gas concentration scenarios: a moderate emissions scenario (RCP 4.5) and a high emissions scenario (RCP 8.5). The range of temperatures shown correspond to approximately -15 to 5 °C or 10 to 38 °F. Climate projections were developed by a University of Massachusetts Amherst team for the Northeast to evaluate the potential effects of climate change on wildlife habitat and ecological integrity from 2010 to 2080. Data courtesy of the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative.

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Climate projections displayed in this map represent the average of the minimum air temperature (degrees F) for December, January, and February. Colors change from blue to purple as air...

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Stressors

Changes in winter

Recent research has shown that climate changes in winter, such as soil freezing and snow cover, are having strong and often surprising impacts on species and ecosystems in seasonally snow-covered areas such as high-elevation and alpine habitats. Changes in winter are impacting ecosystem structure and function with important consequences for carbon sequestration, decomposition, and export, which influence production in agricultural and forest habitats.

Winter Temperatures
Average air temperatures in New England have shown the greatest increases during the winter season; over the last half-century winter temperatures have risen by more than 3 °F. This trend is projected to continue with winter temperatures in Massachusetts potentially increasing as much as 6 °F under the highest emission scenario by the end-of-century. The winter season has also been getting shorter over past decades, as the timing of fall has shifted later, and spring earlier - each by about a week or more.

Extreme cold winter temperatures in Massachusetts and the Northeast region have been observed in recent years and are thought to be the result of rapid warming in the Arctic, which influences the strength and meandering of the jet stream?. These atypical cold temperatures were the exception as the rest of the world experienced some of the highest temperatures on record. Studies of these extreme temperature events are an emerging area of climate science. Recent research suggests it is likely that North America will experience additional extreme winter temperatures though they are expected to vary in intensity and frequency over time. Increases in the amplitude of the jet stream in winter may also explain the observed increases in winter storms affecting the Northeast United States. 

Winter Precipitation and Snowpack
Annual winter precipitation has been increasing; however, future projections of precipitation are generally less certain than temperature. Projections for Massachusetts and the greater New England region consistently predict wetter winters, though with more precipitation falling as rain than snow. Warmer temperatures, fewer annual snowfall events, and more precipitation falling as rain have already led to fewer numbers of days with snow on the ground, and are expected to lead to less annual snowfall totals and snowpack depths; however, projections of more intense snowfall events suggest local increases in snowfall and snowpack totals may occur, including in high elevation habitats. Snowpacks are thinning in the Northeast, melting earlier, and have shown shorter durations. Snowlines also show signs of retreating upslope. Climate projections for the 21st century suggest a continuation of observed trends of decreased snow depth and duration of snow cover due to warming and the advancement of spring. Snowpack quality and characteristics, such as texture (e.g., more ice-like, harder and crustier snow), may change in Massachusetts due to increased freezing and thawing over the winter season as well as more rain and freezing rain events.

Snow acts as an important soil insulator and decreased snowpacks and ground cover during winter can result in colder soils and increase soil freezing depths. This phenomenon has been shown to lead to increased root mortality, decreases in soil decomposition, increased nitrogen as well as other changes in soil chemistry. There is still high uncertainty concerning the interactive effects of changes in snow insulation and air temperatures and how this will impact fish and wildlife species and habitats in Massachusetts as well as the greater New England region.

Snowmelt and Hydrology
Earlier winter-spring peak stream and river flows (in the range of 7-10 days) have been observed in the Northeast and are thought to be linked to earlier snowmelt and increased rain-on-snow episodes. This trend is projected to continue during the 21st century. A shift toward higher winter flows and lower spring and summer flows has been documented in the Connecticut River Watershed using climate-driven streamflow simulations. Changes in the timing and the magnitude of spring snowmelt in the eastern U.S. are crucial to maintain ecosystem functions since some aquatic species rely on seasonal streamflows for critical life cycle events. Larger peak flows can contribute to increases in river scour magnitude and frequency and negatively affect survival of some species and life stages. In addition, changes in winter climatic conditions due to decreased snowpack, increased temperatures, and precipitation may increase nutrient and pollution inputs into regional watersheds with negative results on water quality and downstream habitats.

Historical (black line) and projected seasonal averages of snow water equivalent in Massachusetts according to an average of 33 downscaled CMIP5 models. A low (RCP 4.5) scenario of projected changes is shown in blue and a high scenario (RCP 8.5) in red. Solid lines show average model results and their standard deviations are indicated by the respective shaded envelopes. Image credit: USGS National Climate Change Viewer.
Historical (black line) and projected seasonal averages of snow water equivalent in Massachusetts according to an average of 33 downscaled CMIP5 models. A low (RCP 4.5) scenario of projected changes is shown in blue and a high scenario (RCP 8.5) in red. Solid lines show average model results and their standard deviations are indicated by the respective shaded envelopes. Image credit: USGS National Climate Change Viewer.

References

1. Campbell, J. L., S. V. Ollinger, G. N. Flerchinger, H. Wicklein, K. Hayhoe, and A. S. Bailey. 2011. Past and projected future changes in snowpack and soil frost at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, New Hampshire, USA. Hydrological Processes 24:2465-2480.

2. Campbell, J. L., S. V. Ollinger, G. N. Flerchinger, H. Wicklein, K. Hayhoe, and A. S. Bailey. 2010. Past and projected future changes in snowpack and soil frost at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, New Hampshire, USA. Hydrological Processes 24:2465-2480.

3. Campbell, J. et al. 2007. Long-term trends from ecosystem research at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station, Newtown Square, PA.

4. Christenson, L. M., M. J. Mitchell, P. M. Groffman, and G. M. Lovett. 2010. Winter climate change implications for decomposition in Northeastern forests: Comparisons of sugar maple litter to herbivore fecal inputs. Global Change Biology 16:2589-2601.

5. Fitzhugh, R. D., C. T. Driscoll, P. M. Groffman, G. L. Tierney, T. J., Fahey, and J. P. Hardy. 2001. Effects of soil freezing disturbance on soil solution nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon chemistry in a northern hardwood ecosystem. Biogeochemistry 56:215-238.

6. Fitzhugh, R. D., C. T. Driscoll, P. M. Groffman, G. L. Tierney, T. J. Fahey, and J. P. Hardy. 2003. Soil freezing and the acid-base chemistry of soil solutions in a northern hardwood forest. Soil Science Society of America Journal 67:1897-1908.

7. Groffman, P. M., J. P. Hardy, C. T. Driscoll, and T. J. Fahey. 2006. Snow depth, soil freezing, and fluxes of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane in a northern hardwood forest. Global Change Biology 12:1748-1760.

8. Guilbert, J., A. K. Betts, D. M. Rizzo, B. Beckage, and A. Bomblies. 2015. Characterization of increased persistence and intensity of precipitation in the northeastern United States. Geophysical Research Letters 42:1888-1893.

9. Hayhoe, K., C. P. Wake, T. G. Huntington, L. Luo, M. D. Schwartz, J. Sheffield, E. Wood, B. Anderson, J. Bradbury, and A. DeGaetano. 2007. Past and future changes in climate and hydrological indicators in the US Northeast. Climate Dynamics 28:381-407.

10. Hodgkins, G. A., R. W. Dudley, and T. G. Huntington. 2005. Summer low flows in New England during the 20th Century. Journal of the American Water Resources Association 41:403-411.

11. Horton R., W. Solecki, and C. Rosenzweig. 2012. Climate change in the Northeast: A Sourcebook. Draft Technical Input Report prepared for the U.S. National Climate Assessment. 313 p.

12. Kunkel, K. E. 2013. Regional climate trends and scenarios for the US National Climate Assessment. US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service.

13. Mahanama, S., B. Livneh, R. Koster, D. Lettenmaier, and R. Reichle. 2012. Soil moisture, snow, and seasonal streamflow forecasts in the United States. Journal of Hydrometeorology 13:189-203.

14. Maloney, E. D., et al. 2014. North American Climate in CMIP5 Experiments: Part III: Assessment of Twenty-First-Century Projections. Journal of Climate 27:2230-2270.

15. Marshall, E. and T. Randhir. 2008. Effect of climate change on watershed system: a regional analysis. Climatic Change 89:263-280.

16. Pierce, D. W. and D. R. Cayan. 2013. The uneven response of different snow measures to human-induced climate warming. Journal of Climate 26:4148-4167.

17. Rawlins, M. A., R. S. Bradley, and H. F. Diaz. 2012. Assessment of regional climate model simulation estimates over the northeast United States. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 117:D23112.

18. Schoof, J. T. 2015. High resolution projections of 21st century daily precipitation for the contiguous US. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres: doi:10.1002/2014JD022376.

19. Staudinger, M.D., Grimm, N., Staudt, A., Carter, S., Chapin, F.S.III, Kareiva, P., Ruckelshaus, M., and B. Stein. 2012. Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity, Ecosystems, and Ecosystem Services: Technical Input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment. Cooperative Report to the 2013 National Climate Assessment. 296 p.  Available at: http://assessment.globalchange.gov

20. Thompson, P. R., G. T. Mitchum, C. Vonesch, and J. Li. 2013. Variability of winter storminess in the eastern United States during the twentieth century from tide gauges. Journal of Climate 26:9713-9726.

21. Tierney GL, Fahey TJ, Groffman PM, Hardy JP, Fitzhugh RD, and Driscoll CT. 2001. Soil freezing alters fine root dynamics in a northern hardwood forest. Biogeochemistry 56:175-190.

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