A few weeks ago, in a piece about old-time weather forecaster Billy Spinner, I mentioned insects on our sidewalk near Christmastime, which is certainly out of the ordinary in my life’s experience. In another piece in December, I mentioned the value of keeping a journal. The two subjects came together recently when I was pondering how the winters of my youth seem so different from those we are experiencing today. Of course, we can’t trust our memories, which again demonstrates the value of a journal.
Now don’t get all excited thinking that I’m trying to prove climate change or global warming. I do know that through my teen years (mainly the 1960s), little time was spent wondering if we would have a white Christmas each year. It was basically a given.
For that reason, one of my standout memories of those years was the shocking warm spell that immediately followed one Christmas. Fortunately for me and my younger brother Skipp, that was the year we both received bicycles as presents, and for a few special days, we had a chance to try out our new wheels. By New Year’s Day, it was back to deep snow and cold temps.
I decided to take a look at my journal from 1973, and it was remarkable to see the different mindset of those days compared to today. The following entry was a real eye-opener. I wrote it when I was just out of my teens and was spending lots of time studying nature on my own.
“One item of interest … is the presence of insects in the winter season. While on a walk … we saw many caterpillars of various types in the snow-covered stream meadow. In the last two weeks, I have twice captured mosquitoes and twice been surprised to see a honeybee land on the snow. I must also mention the continuous presence of various spiders I have seen on each trek into the woods. Most curious of all, perhaps, is the countless thousands of tiny gray insects that I call ‘snow fleas.’ All [the bugs] are unexpected sights in the winter wilds.”
You might wonder what makes that passage remarkable. Well, note the phrasing, which includes several references to winter and snow. That was written on November 30, 1974. The expectation back then was for snow flurries in October, snow on the ground in November, and plenty of snow cover for most of the big-game hunting season. Older hunters can tell you it was considered normal. Such conditions today would be regarded as extraordinary.
Where forty years ago I was very surprised to find insects during the snowy season in mid-November, the same surprise occurs today well into December. And the annual White Christmases of long ago? A modern-day crapshoot.
My grandfather kept a weather journal, and my respect for his advice led me to finish each of my own entries with a very brief synopsis of the day’s weather. I thought it might be interesting to see how those entries from decades ago matched up with today’s weather.
As it turns out, they couldn’t be more different. The theme: frequent snow and early cold. From 1974: 15 Nov., snow flurries, nothing sticks; 21 Nov., 6 inches of snow, winds 40–50; 1–2 Dec., 3 inches of snow; 4–15 Dec., mostly teens and 20s; 16–17 Dec., high winds, sleet, snow accumulation of 10 inches; 18 Dec., snow, heavy at times, 2–4 inches accumulate; 19 Dec., light snow all day, 2 inches accumulate; 20 Dec., 2 inches of snow; 21 Dec., forecast of 6–10 inches, but only 1 inch falls; 24 Dec., a half-inch of snow; 25 Dec., 2 inches of snow; 26 Dec., temp drops to 3 below.
The next winter was similar, starting much earlier than happens today. 14–15 Nov., 10 inches of snow; 21 Nov., snow forecast, but with the temp just above freezing, rain fell all day; 22–26 Nov., temps below freezing; 27 Nov. (Thanksgiving Day), 9–10 inches of snow and winds of 20–30; 2 Dec., 3 inches of snow; 3 Dec., 16 degrees; 4 Dec., 10 degrees (very cold all day for both days).
The rest of the winter, as usual back then, was very cold and featured lots of snow. Highlights included a snow-lightning storm on Dec. 26, dropping upwards of 6 inches of snow; a frigid January, with temps from +15 to –33, including 21 days where the temp dropped below zero; and February was similar until the last few days of the month. On March 17, the North Country received 13–20 inches of snow. On April 5, the morning temp was only 8 degrees, rising to the low 40s during the day. (Imagine, 8 degrees, and on the very next day, which was warm, I found a dead garter snake in the road.) April 9, the temp reached only the high teens, but the next day I was climbing in the Rt. 73 area, and temps were in the 60s.
One more odd weather event, this time from 1976: an early heat wave hit the area, with temps in the 90s from April 16 to the 21st. It broke on April 22, when the high was in the 50s.
Daily records like those indicate that we certainly had odd weather extremes back then, just as we do today. The big difference was that, at least where I lived within a few miles of the Canadian border, we considered winter as lasting from mid-November at least through April. The real warm-up began only in June. Our expectations are far different today.
For several years, including the late 1970s, I attended the Jericho Bluegrass Festival, which was held in late May just 11 miles northwest of Plattsburgh. Routinely, everyone dressed in layers to ward off the cold, and on at least two occasions, snow flurries fell while the bands played on.
I know it’s not anything like hard science, but it’s still interesting to compare our current seasons to three or four decades ago. “Times change,” goes the saying. They sure do.
Photo: Heat-wave headline from April 19, 1976.