Why Winter Matters

Snowfall is below average for much of the Northeast, including most of Pennsylvania. While El Niño is partly to blame for this mild winter, human-caused climate change is reducing snow and the benefits that come with it.

A 2021 Climate Impacts Assessment from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection projected that Pennsylvania will get warmer and wetter. The average air temperature is projected to increase by 5.9 degrees by 2050 compared to the baseline (1971-2000). Annual precipitation is projected to increase from 43.5 inches to 47.1 inches, with storms growing more extreme punctuated by more frequent droughts. But as temperatures warm, more of that moisture will fall as rain instead of snow.

Already, some areas are facing long bouts without snow. As of Feb. 18, Allentown is the National Weather Service’s only Eastern U.S. daily climate location running above their seasonal snowfall total to date. Other cities are far below their averages. Pittsburgh, for example, has a deficit 17.1 inches of snow compared to the average for this time of year. Philadelphia went 715 days without more than one inch of snowfall this winter, a record-breaking streak finally halted by a storm on Jan. 15. The previous record was 661 snowless days, set back in 1973.

In Pennsylvania, where rainfall remains consistent through the spring and summer months, snowpack doesn’t operate quite like it does in the West, where millions of people depend on runoff from that snow in the spring and summer months. But that doesn’t mean snowpack isn’t important or deeply valued east of the Mississippi.

For the Love of Snow

During the short days of winter when the trees are bare and clouds cover the sky, snow brightens the woods, the trails, and the mountains, providing recreation that is unique to this time of year. Winter activities, from ice fishing to skiing to sledding, are popular across the Commonwealth and great way to stay active and healthy. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources maintains a State Park Winter Report, which provides weekly updates on snow and ice depth at the parks, as well as what activities are available at each.

But among the potential consequences of less snow, as described in the DEP’s Climate Assessment, is a “severe reduction” in winter-based recreation and tourism. Already, parts of the state are suffering some of these effects.

Source: National Weather Service

At the start of winter, ski resorts struggled to open terrain due to a lack of natural snowfall and warm temperatures that interfered with snowmaking. Some groups have had to cancel scheduled snowshoe and cross-country ski outings due to a lack of snow.

A storm over Presidents Day weekend brought some much-needed snow, boosting winter recreation. Blue Mountain Resort, in Carbon County, saw a sold-out Presidents Day weekend for both skiing and tubing, thanks in large part to the storm and cooler temperatures that enabled staff to open all 40 of the resort’s trails. People drove hours to enjoy a day on the snowy slopes.

“We see lots of crowds every year during this time, and then the fresh snow that came this week into the weekend was really the recipe for a lot of skiers coming out,” Blue Mountain’s Ashley Seier told WNEP.

At the end of January, the Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy saw a record turnout at its Snowshoe 5K at Spring Mountain, with more than 300 snowshoers participating. These and other activities support local economies and spark a love for the outdoors that promotes a sense of stewardship.

Natural Benefits

Snowpack also plays an important role in water quality and aquatic ecosystems. For the state’s reservoirs, snow acts like a battery, storing water that fills reservoirs in the late winter and spring.

“There is no spigot or a faucet we can turn on to refill our reservoirs. We use the snowmelt and spring rain to build from winter pool to summer pool,” said Megan Gottlieb, the Water Management unit lead for the Pittsburgh District. “Without a snowpack, it would delay our ability to fill to summer pool by at least a month or two,” Gottlieb said, referring to the water level of a reservoir at normal operating conditions. “Or we run the risk of not reaching summer pool at all if it’s extremely dry.”

Riding bikes on Black Moshannon Lake.

By her estimate, about half of the water flowing into the reservoirs in the spring comes from snowpack. The other half comes from rain and runoffs. These reservoirs, in turn, mitigate flood damage, improve water quality, support river navigation, and provide recreation.

Carl Nim, a biologist for the Water Quality section of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District, added that snowpack makes for healthier aquatic ecosystems. Cold water also holds more oxygen than warm water, which supports life.

“That’s definitely a water quality benefit since the reservoirs get filled with high dissolved oxygen water,” Nim said.

If temperatures change gradually, snowpack melts more slowly, which can recharge groundwater without negative consequences that come with heavy rain like erosion and pollution. Warming river temperatures also prompt fish to begin spawning.

However, rapid changes in temperature can pollute streams with contaminants like salt and metals, impacting aquatic life and drinking water. More extreme flows from higher-intensity storms, which experts predict will become more frequent as a result of climate change, also pose threats to the natural and human world alike.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission adopted a climate action plan in 2022 to address these and other issues. It identifies species of greatest conservation need and climate resiliency strategies across the Commonwealth.

A worrying consequence of a warming planet is what scientists call “the albedo effect.”

Albedo refers to how a surface reflect solar radiation. On the Earth’s surface, snow and ice have a high albedo, meaning they reflect more solar radiation than darker surfaces like oceans and soil absorb radiation, causing warming. Albedo has a self-reinforcing effect. The cooler the planet, the more snow that accumulates and reflects light back to space, perpetuating the cooling effect. However, a warming planet means more snow is melting, causing more warming and melting.

The Latest Solutions

Avoiding the worst effects of climate change requires reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At PEC, we have been advocating for deep decarbonization through reports like the Climate and Energy Policy Recommendations roadmap that outlines how the Commonwealth should accelerate the shift toward a ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions profile. This year, we will update those recommendations to take into account the most recent research and developments.

In December, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new federal standards that will compel states to adopt stricter rules for controlling emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide in the near term. Implementing those regulations quickly is particularly important for Pennsylvania, the second-largest producer of natural gas in the country with an extraordinary number of older and less-managed wells that often leak methane.

An important initiative aimed at reducing emissions has been pushing to reform the current Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards (AEPS), which Governor Josh Shapiro has said is important for incentivizing clean energy development in the state. Last summer, H.B. 1467 was referred to the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s Environmental and Energy Committee. If passed, it would require the state to derive 30% of its energy from renewable sources, upping the current standard of 8%. Such legislation also would build on investment from the federal government to promote clean energy.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Energy identified Pennsylvania as the site of two “hydrogen hubs,” which could potentially be the key to decarbonizing industries that can’t readily be switched over to clean electric power. In a recent blog post, PEC’s John Walliser, Senior Vice President for Legal and Government Affairs, explained the promise of hydrogen while cautioning that in order for it to be an important part of Pennsylvania’s energy transition, “we have to get it right from the start.”

To learn more about our path to Pennsylvania’s clean-energy future, visit https://pecpa.org/air/.