How a Hardware Store in Brooklyn Canceled Winter

COMMENTARY
By Andrew Freedman


If you are one of the millions of Americans wondering why winter is missing in action this year, look no further than a sign hanging above the entrance to a hardware store on Court Street in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. I walk by that store every day on my way to and from the Borough Hall subway station, and I’m quite confident the sign single-handedly banished winter to the Arctic this year.  

“Be prepared for winter,” the sign screams in red neon letters that zoom across the screen like a Times Square news ticker. “Get your shovels, sleds, salt, and snow blowers here!”

When I saw the sign for the first time back in November, I figured it was a prudent move, considering that last year New York and much of the country experienced punishing blizzards that broke snowfall records. One such storm last January dumped nearly 2 feet of snow in Brooklyn, and was accompanied by the holy grail of weather phenomena (for a snow lover anyway) — thundersnow. That rare blend of simultaneous snow and thunder is the only thing that transforms seasoned Weather Channel anchors like Jim Cantore and Mike Seidel from sober-minded analysts into teen weather nerds yelling, “Did you see that? Thundersnow! Holy smokes!”

This year we actually experienced thundersnow again, except that it occurred in October, when a massively destructive early-season snowstorm slammed New England with close to 3 feet of snow. But that storm only counts for the annual snow total, not for the winter season, which is defined as December through February. In Brooklyn, we saw about 2 inches of wet, sloppy slush from that event. Since then we’ve had barely any snow, and the snow deficit is quickly rising, to the point where it may soon rival the federal budget deficit.

OK, so maybe the snow deficit won’t reach 13 trillion inches, but it is substantial. And I blame the hardware store, which I’ll withhold from naming in order to discourage vandalism by snow enthusiasts, because the sign makes the assumption that it will snow a lot this year. Any snow lover residing on the East Coast — or really anywhere, for that matter — knows that Mother Nature is fickle, and what is a beautifully falling snow one minute can turn into a sleety mess the next, or evaporate into thin air due to a shifting storm track.

In other words, the first rule of snow club is don’t talk about snow in a way that assumes there will be any. Clearly the store broke that rule, offended the snow gods, and is fouling up ski season and other winter weather activities.

In Central Park, just 4.3 inches of snow had fallen as of February 8, barely enough to necessitate the purchase of a shovel, let alone a sleek, new snowblower. During January of last year — an unusually snowy month — 36 inches accumulated. 

And it’s not just New York that’s suffering from a snow drought this winter. The entire country is showing a lot more bare ground than usual. Hartford and Boston had each picked up just 6.8 inches by Feb. 8, which is an amount those cities typically receive in a single storm. Syracuse, N.Y., which lies in the path of normally prolific lake effect snow squalls, currently has a snowfall deficit of more than 4 feet.

U.S. snow cover on February 8, 2011. Credit: NOAA.

U.S. snow cover on February 9, 2012. Credit: NOAA.

The situation is even worse out West. The snow pack in the Colorado and Nevada mountains is so thin it contains just 30-35 percent of its normal water content, according to the National Weather Service. Robert Hartman, a hydrologist at the California/Nevada River Forecast Center, characterized the region’s snow pack as “dismal” but not record-breaking, since lower readings were seen in 1929 and 1977.

Reno, Nevada has had just 0.6 inches of snow so far this year, compared to the average through February of 18.6 inches. Conditions were so dry that two large wildfires occurred during December and January. Large wildfires had never taken place during these two months in recorded history, according to Rhete Milne, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno.

Of course, I know from my weather and climate science expertise that the main culprits in this snowless winter lie in sources of climate variability like La Nina, the Arctic Oscillation and Pacific/North American Pattern, the orientation of the jet stream, bad luck and possibly long-term global warming as well.

But my gut says that the hardware store set these events into motion by turning on their ill-advised sign. And I have a very simple, Ronald Reagan-esque message for them: “Mr. Hardware store owner — tear down this sign.”