Nearly nonexistent January snowfall impacts environment, disrupts winter traditions

While January typically sees about 16.4 inches of snowfall, only .8 inches have fallen so far this year.

by Charlotte Hampton | 1/10/23 5:05am

emilliden-lowsnow-1-9-22
by Emil Liden / The Dartmouth

It feels unusual for students to return for winter term and see bare grass on campus, but this phenomenon may become much more common in coming years. Hanover’s changing temperatures — which have increased by four to five degrees Fahrenheit in the last century — are caused by climate change and will continue to affect Dartmouth traditions like cross country ski racing and the Winter Carnival, according to earth science professor Erich Osterberg. 

Although Osterberg said there is not enough conclusive data yet to link climate change to the low snow levels that Hanover has experienced in the first part of January, he noted that the current absence of snow is consistent with larger patterns of less snowfall in the Upper Valley in recent years as compared to historical data.

“We are seeing that snow cover on the ground shows up later and is gone earlier,” Osterberg said. “These are long-term trends that we see in the data over the last few decades, which we have total confidence is caused by human emissions, climate change [and] global warming.”

Hanover typically sees the most snowfall in January, averaging 16.4 inches that month from 1991 to 2020, but is currently in a “snow drought,” Gavin Fry ’25, who works at the Shattuck Observatory and records weather observations in Hanover for the National Weather Service, wrote in an email statement. Fry added that Hanover has only seen .8 inches of snow in 2023 so far, meaning the Upper Valley is far behind the pace of typical January snowfall.

“We had a slightly above average December snowfall month, but above-average temperatures and a dry spell since the new year have made snow in Hanover seem scarce,” Fry wrote.

The increased temperatures also shake the ecosystem, causing an increase in Lyme disease cases and a decrease in the Upper Valley moose population, Osterberg said. Between 75 and 90% of moose calves in northern New England are dying from the “winter tick,” which are able to survive in the warmer-than-normal winter weather, he added. 

Sunrise Movement Dartmouth coordinator Grace Hillery said that the lack of snow underscores the gravity of the climate crisis. 

“It’s not even a question of whether climate change is real or debateable,” Hillery said. “We’re seeing the impacts of it right now… This isn’t something that we [can] tackle 10 years in the future. It’s happening right now and it needs to be addressed with urgency.”

Rising temperatures and less snow also pose a challenge for the cultural staples of a Dartmouth winter such as snow sports, according to Osterberg.

“When I first moved here you could reliably go to the Dartmouth Skiway or over to Oak Hill to watch the cross country downhill races on Winter Carnival,” Osterberg said. “They are not able to hold the cross country races here consistently because we don’t have the snow anymore. Even the snow sculpture every year is a struggle.” 

According to past reporting by The Dartmouth, warmer weather made it difficult to create snow sculptures during Winter Carnival in 2022. Snow for the creations became ice from melting and refreezing, halting the 95-year-old tradition in its tracks.   

Hanover’s winter festival on Occom pond — which Osterberg called “a fabulous part of our local culture” — has been canceled about every other winter since 1997 because the pond didn’t freeze over adequately, according to Osterberg. 

Club Nordic captain John DeForest ’25 said he and his teammates are “praying and chanting for snow.” 

DeForest added that the Nordic ski team has had to replace skiing on snow with roller skiing training, workout sessions and dirt and rock skiing, which involves using a special kind of ski wax to move across exposed ground. They could also use artificial snow mats, which “feel pretty funky, and look pretty funky, but kind of work,” DeForest said.

Dartmouth physical education director for skiing John Brady said he was more optimistic. 

“We see heavy snow years, we see light snow years, but for alpine ski areas, they really don’t depend on natural snowfall as much as they used to,” he said. “All we need is just cold weather to make [artificial] snow.” 

Dartmouth’s skiing and snowboarding PE credits, guided by trained instructors, draws about 200 students to the Dartmouth Skiway every weekend, according to Brady. He said he is confident the program will be able to progress as normal this year. 

For both Osterberg and DeForest, the lack of snow deprives campus of a crucial element for winter traditions. Osterberg said that winter traditions at Dartmouth provide part of Dartmouth’s “sense of place.” 

“One of the things that defines us here in New England is our snowy winters,” Osterberg said. “That’s how we get outside in the wintertime — we enjoy cross country skiing, downhill skiing and ice skating and all of those things have been seriously curtailed this winter.”

Brady added that winter sports play an important role in Dartmouth’s culture and history. 

“You really can’t talk about the history of skiing in New Hampshire without Dartmouth coming into the conversation,” Brady said. “Our winter programs are… one of the things that really distinguish Dartmouth from the rest of the Ivies.”

In an email statement, Winter Carnival chairs Lucas Gatterman ’23, Piper Gilbert ’25 and Erica Dunne ’25 said that the committee has not yet decided on any schedule changes to Winter Carnival, currently scheduled from Feb. 9 to 12, because of lack of snow. 

“There have been many years where we experience a period of thaw and low snow in January and go on to have a successful and snowy Winter Carnival,” the chairs wrote. “It only takes a bit of snow for a successful carnival, so we aren’t worried too much yet as there is plenty of time for that to fall.”

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