Monday, February 4, 2013

Climate Change: Entries From A 1970s Journal

PPR Headline 19 Apr 1976A 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.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

4 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    I’m surprised that we don’t hear of more record keeping like this. I’d love to see actual temperature and snowfall graphs over the years, as well as antecdotes on the typical sugar season, ice coverage or when a particular tree turned color in the Fall. Is it me or do we not have a lot of hard evidence of weather changes that is easy to show?

  2. Charlie says:

    I dont have the notes in front of me so i dont know the exact numbers,but my grandfather recorded well over 200 inches of snow in Blue Mountain Lake in the early 1970’s.I have journals from him from 1970-74 and every winter he went on and on about all of the snow BML was getting back in them days. Recently i read something from Eric Sloane that he put out in the 1950’s where he was saying the temperatures were warming up back then,which sorta surprised me.If i wouldn’t have known the date of publication i would have thought his words were current.There certainly are cycles of warm and cold,but when icebergs start disappearing like they are nowadays,we must admit something is different here. What gets me is that there are still people who are living in that state called denial,who say it’s all a liberal hoax this global warming issue. Scientist are saying carbon emissions are warming the planet and that sure does make sense to me.Now if we can just get all of these fools who step out of their cars and leave their engines running for half an hour`to wise up and just turn the darned thing off…maybe we can prolong life on this planet. Maybe it is too late for that.

  3. Charlie says:

    I should emphasize and say 200 inches of snow in one winter.Also there is an analogy that makes super sense to me,and that is: Imagine the earth a garage and the earth’s atmosphere the garage roof where nothing escapes from it. Imagine parking your car in your garage and closing the door and leave your engine running.How long do you think that fool in the garage will live to share his experience? This is what’s happening to the earth.Carbon emissions are not escaping and so we are warming up and sadly we are doomed unless something cahnges soon. If more of us were just educated properly and if only we would have gotten money out of politics two years ago.

  4. Long-term journal records and weather station data are valuable in understanding how the region may be changing. Here are details from two Adirondack studies using different datasets:

    1. A recent SUNY ESF Adirondack Ecological Center study of lake ice and weather found up to 21 days less ice cover over 30 years, mostly due to later freeze-up and partially due to earlier break-up. Rates of warming in the Adirondacks are among the highest regionally, although with a different seasonality of changes (early winter > late winter).

    Article: Beier, Stella, Dovciak and McNulty. 2012. Local climatic drivers of changes in phenology at a boreal-temperate ecotone in eastern North America. Climatic Change 115:399-417.

    2. Analysis of Adirondack weather data reveals warming over the last 30 years during June and September, but no significant trends in the other months. The warmest intervals from 1926-2005 were the early 1930s, 1949-1954, and 1997-2003. Responses of plants and animals to weather trends were obscured, perhaps because of interannual variability. A significant reduction in the duration of ice cover has occurred on local lakes. Increased river discharge probably reflects a long-term increase in precipitation, particularly during fall.

    Article: Stager, McNulty, Beier, and Chiarenzelli. 2009. Historical Patterns and Effects of Changes in Adirondack Climates since the Early 20th Century. Adirondack Journal of Environmental Studies.

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