Burlington winters can be harsh, but snow and ice haven't slowed us down. Instead, we built our economy and culture around these parts of our climate. But what do rising global temperatures mean for our winters?

The Trouble With Snow

Lately, the amount of days with snow on the ground seems to be declining. Our local observations fit a regional trend. Across the Northeast in the past three decades, the number of days with snow cover has decreased an average of 16 days.

Snow is also slushier, and it's melting earlier in the season.

What does this mean for winter sports?

Artificial snowmaking can help downhill skiing areas compensate for some of the effects of climate change, though costs can be steep.

Activities that rely completely on natural snow, like tobogganning and cross-country skiing, won't fare as well.

The snowmobiling season is expected to shrink dramatically by the end of the century.

What's bad for our winter sports is also bad for our economy. Downhill skiing contributes over a billion dollars to the state's economy each year; snowmobiling generates $3 billion for the economy of the Northeast.

A loss of snow affects more than just winter sports. For example, many plants need snow cover to protect their roots from frost damage. In a warmer world, plants would lose this winter blanket.

For more information, check out the reports from the Notheast Climate Impacts Assessment from the Union of Concerned Scientists, and this Indicators Map at the University of New Hampshire - just click on Burlington.

A Less Icy Lake Champlain

The Bigger Picture

Lakes all across the Northeast (like the one shown below) are feeling the heat. The ice is breaking up an average of 9 to 16 days earlier than it did in 1850.

Burlington overlooks Lake Champlain, the sixth largest body of fresh water in the United States. Lake Champlain is a great place for ice skating and ice fishing.

Lately, though, the lake is taking longer to freeze over. Lake Champlain is freezing over more than eight days later than it did in the mid-to-late 1800s.

More and more, the lake doesn't freeze over completely. Since the early 1800s there have been 30 years when the lake hasn't frozen over, and most of these years have been within the past few decades.

A loss of ice cover will affect the lake's ecosystem -- and the fish we like to catch. For example, lake ice cover provides a protective layer that helps block the affects of wind and waves. And it's important to remember that climate change won't just reduce Lake Champlain's ice cover. It will alter the lake's complex ecology in unpredictable ways throughout all four seasons.

The chart below shows the recent history of ice cover on the lake.

The data for this graph came from the National Weather Service. Also, check out the Northeast Indicators of Climate Change Report at Clean Air-Cool Planet, and read this article from the Burlington Free Press about Lake Champlain and climate change.