WEATHER SPECIAL: Impacts of climate change across western Massachusetts

Weather News

CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – The 22News Storm Team talks about the ways climate change is affecting our winters now, and in the future.

We get asked about climate change a lot, and while winter isn’t going anywhere, the length of the season, the intensity of winter rain and snow and even the potholes you drive over, are changing, because the climate is changing.

Preparing for this season’s ice, snow and cold, the time is now for our local cities and towns to plan for and adapt to, the changes in our changing seasons.

Winter in western Massachusetts! Whether you love it or hate it, winters in western Massachusetts are changing! When we’re in the icy grasp of winter, it may seem imperceptible, but the science shows, winters are warming.

“We’re seeing a trend toward warmer winters in the northeast U.S. and in Massachusetts. Winters are projected to warm by perhaps as much as 6 degrees fahrenheit over the next 50 to 60 years.”

Michael Rawlins, UMass Climate System Research Center

As our winters warm, consecutive days of below-average temperatures or more simply put “cold snaps” are getting shorter. In fact, in Amherst, where there is an over 100-year climate record, we’ve had winters in recent years where the entire season’s temperature has averaged above freezing.

“So having 3 winters above freezing in the past 20 years, two of them in the past ten years, it’s really really symbolic of our warming and how our climate is transitioning to more liquid precip versus solid.”

Michael Rawlins, UMass Climate System Research Center

Warmer and shorter winters will mean challenges for the winter recreation industry in western Massachusetts, like skiing, snowmobiling, and ice fishing. And a shorter, warmer winter may mean a longer breeding season and more tolerable cold seasons for insects that carry disease, like mosquitos and ticks.

“We’re seeing a late fall freeze-up and earlier spring thaw. The frozen season is contracting. There’s a lot of research in this area. The Asian tiger mosquito has been moving north as a result of warmer temps.”

Michael Rawlins, UMass Climate System Research Center

Just because winters are getting shorter, does not necessarily mean we’ll be shoveling less snow. A warmer climate can carry more moisture. As a result there has been an increase in heavy precipitation, and that can mean an increase in heavy snow in winter.

“So in a warmer winter the atmosphere holds more moisture, and thats one of the reasons why we can see heavy snow events in winter when it’s cold enough to have snow.”

Michael Rawlins, UMass Climate System Research Center

The scientific statistics are showing an increase in strong storms, and cities here in western Massachusetts are feeling the effects. Easthampton, along with several cities and towns in the pioneer valley, is partnering with the state for the municipal vunerabilty preparedness program, to better plan for and adapt to our changing climate.

“One of our most vulnerable elements is increased rainfall and more intense storms, so those are things that are beyond our control. As a municipality, we’re trying to look at what we can do to mitigate some of the impacts.”

Jeff Bagg, Easthampton City Planner

For example, this storm drain pipe on the outskirts of downtown Easthampton doesn’t look very important, but it’s inability to handle a higher volume of water with more frequent heavy rain has caused erosion around it, and potentially, flooding on the streets above it.

“These new storms they are more intense and they have higher velocity flows. The water moving faster so it can do more destruction. Our infrasturcture is old and it also was designed under different design plans than what we have now.”

Diane Rossini, Easthampton DPW Engineer

The money from the municipal vulnerability preparedness program will help to design and build infrastructure more resilient to climate change. For Easthampton and cities across the commonwealth, the list of projects is long, but to really address climate change, a holistic approach is needed.

“We’re also looking to plan to use green infrastructure and find ways to use the environment as opposed to all these hard pipes and outfalls to get rid of the water and mitigate it.”

Diane Rossini, Easthampton DPW Engineer

The “ah ha” moment for me in this report was the connection of more intense precipitation from the science, to the more intense precipitation that towns like Easthampton are dealing with right now.

Even with something as simple as potholes. Potholes are created by melted water getting to cracks in the pavement and refreezing. If we have fewer consecutive days of freezing weather, we’ll have more of those freeze and thaw cycles, and very likely, more potholes!

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