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Brutal Boston winter? About average so far

Boston has been bludgeoned with wicked weather this winter, and after routinely shoveling driveways and trudging through snow banks, people wonder if there is an end in sight after the third-snowiest January ever and another storm to kick-start February. Dan Douglass, a lecturer in Northeastern University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, breaks down how this winter compares for overall precipitation, and weighs in on climate change for good measure.

How has this winter’s precipitation and temperatures compared to years past?

To measure a snow event in terms of precipitation, 10 to 15 inches of white, fluffy snow is equivalent to about one inch of water. The winter monthly average is about 4 inches of precipitation. December was a little bit low for precipitation, coming in at 3.5 inches, and January had 4.01 inches. There’s also been a fair amount of variability over the last five years — January precipitation amounts have ranged from 1 inch to nearly 5 inches. December was also 2 degrees below average in terms of temperature, and January was 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit below average. But one thing to keep in mind is any given day is going to be close to average. Some days will be warmer or colder than usual. But climate change is calculated using the average of 30 years of weather — that’s more than 10,000 days total. A cold snap or heat wave doesn’t come close to shifting the average.

What is data currently suggesting about climate change?

According to the data from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, global temperatures over the last 30 years have been rising by about 0.5 degrees Celsius, or about 1 degree Fahrenheit, and while some years are warmer and colder than others, it’s clearly an upward trend. The last 10 years have basically been the 10 warmest years we’ve ever recorded — with 2010 being the warmest year. Temperatures go up and down, but they’re going more up than down.

Where is the greatest change happening, and will we see greater effects in the future?

The place warming the most is the high-arctic environment — Northern Canada, Northern Europe, across Siberia, and the Arctic Ocean itself — and in small ways, we can already see the effects to come. There are huge and noticeable differences in the amount of sea ice in 1970 compared to now. Glaciers are also shrinking worldwide, and all that water is flowing into the oceans and making sea levels rise. In cities like London or Venice with a lot of low-lying land, two or three millimeters a year will add up over 50 years. The vast majority of metropolitan areas in the world are coastal environments.

View selected publications of Dan Douglass in IRis, Northeastern’s digital archive.