It’s the warmest winter

Kevin Robinson and Tom Carpenter were part of a migration of ice anglers out onto the surface of Lake Colby on Friday, camping on the ice for two days for the 40th Colby Classic Ice Fishing Derby. The team of two from Lake George said their home lake hasn’t frozen over at all this year and they’ve been itching to do some angling. Despite this being the warmest winter on record in Saranac Lake, the ice on Lake Colby was around 11 inches thick on Friday, according to event organizer Rocky Nogales, and the derby will be on all weekend. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

SARANAC LAKE — This winter has been the warmest on record for the Saranac Lake area since humans began officially keeping consistent track of the temperatures in 1905, according to the National Weather Service in Burlington.

NWS-Burlington meteorologist Conor Lahiff said the mean average temperature for this winter was 24.1 degrees, half-a-degree higher than the previous record of 23.6, set in the 2015-16 winter, and 7.6 degrees higher than the “normal” winter mean average of 16.5 degrees.

“That’s a pretty significant difference,” Lahiff said.

Before the last warmest recorded winter in 2015-16, the winter of 1932-33 held the record for decades at around 23.5 degrees.

Meteorological winter occurs between the start of December and end of February. The mean average temperature for the winter is taken by averaging the averages of the three months of data.

“For every single day, you take the maximum and minimum temperature for the day to come up with the average temperature and then you take the average of those averages for the entire month,” Lahiff said.

Data from NWS measuring the mean average winter temperature in Saranac Lake since 1905 shows lots of variability between individual years, but a clear trend of normal winter temperatures is getting warmer and warmer.

Before 1950, mean average temps broke the 20-degree line five times. This happened 11 times in the second half of the 20th century, twice as many as in the first half. Since the turn of the millennium, winters here have exceeded that 20-degree threshold six times, accounting for around a quarter of the 24 winters so far in the 21st century.

Winters have not dipped below a 10-degree mean average in more than a century. The 1917-18 year was the last time this happened and was particularly cold with a 7.5-dgree mean average. Before that, 1904-05 — the first year on record — had a mean average of 9 degrees.

Lahiff said several factors made this a record-breaking warm winter — climate change, this being an El Nino year and it also being a very cloudy winter.

It’s mostly a combination of climate change and the El Nino year — with climate change pushing the trend toward warmer temperatures overall and El Nino potentially pushing this winter past that high watermark with an odd fluctuation of the weather and air streams.

Climate change

Earlier this week, Paul Smith’s College natural science professor Curt Stager said the Adirondacks have always had mild winters. That is normal. What is unusual is the length and intensity of these warm spells recently, he said. He said these trends will continue as long as humans pollute the planet with greenhouse gasses, which trap heat on the earth.

The only way to stop this, he said, is to switch from powering civilization on fossil fuels to non-polluting energy sources.

“The faster we do it, the less warming we’re going to have,” Stager said. “But some warming is already baked into the system.”

This past December was the second warmest December on record in the Adirondacks, according to Stager. The warmest December was in 2015. Saranac Lake’s meteorological records date back to 1905.

Last year as a whole was the second-warmest year on record in the Adirondacks, tied with 1998 — 2012 was the warmest.

Globally, 2023 was the hottest year on record. January broke the global record for being the warmest January on record, being 2.74-degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels. The previous record was set in 2020.

More severe weather translates to more damage to property and a larger impact on quality of life.

This past summer, Canadian wildfires sparked by lightning strikes burned millions of acres of land and cast a thick haze of smoke down through the United States. Severe flooding in July tore through the Long Lake area, destroying roads, bridges and homes. In December, warmth and rain brought winter flooding along the AuSable River in Keene and Jay and in Tupper Lake.

An unseasonably warm winter made for a slow start to this skiing season, led to ice fishing derbies around the Tri-Lakes being canceled throughout the last month and melted the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ice Palace by the second weekend of festivities.

El Nino

El Nino is a weather phenomenon when the Pacific Ocean surface warms, causing “trade winds” which typically blow east to west to weaken or reverse direction and blow west to east. This happens irregularly, with two to 10 years in between occurrences.

The last strong El Nino year was in the 2015-16 season.

El Nino is a natural cycle that has existed for centuries.

In October, a research paper published in the peer-reviewed “Geophysical Research Letters” points to the El Nino oscillation, which is typically impacted by things like solar output, oceanic circulation or volcanic eruptions, potentially having entered a new mean state of being more frequent and extreme in the 1970s as a direct consequence of human activity. This research was conducted by studying mineral deposits in underground caves which showcase atmospheric conditions over the past 3,500 years.

Cloudy contributor

Marvin Boyd, a lead meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Burlington, Vermont, said earlier this week that the high overnight temperatures this winter contributed a lot to its record warmth.

According to Boyd, a very cloudy January worked like a blanket, holding the warmth on the ground through the night. Usually January has cold, crisp and clear days, but there were very few this year. And there wasn’t a lot of snow either.


Michelle L’Heureux, a scientist with the NWS’s Climate Prediction Center wrote in a blog on climate.gov that “El Nino appears to be the great snowfall suppressor over most of North America.” This blog can be found at tinyurl.com/bddjn5he.

Using new snowfall data analysis, she plotted the average snowfall during El Nino winters from 1959 to 2023 compared to the average snowfall during 1991 through 2020 winters.

This map shows a dark spot right over the Adirondacks showing it is one of the most affected areas in the continental U.S. Northeast during El Nino years, with around an 8- to 10-inch difference in lower average snowfall, compared to normal years.

Another map shows that, again, the Adirondack region is within a dark area in North America which is strongly affected by El Nino years — seeing below-average snowfall during 11 to 12 of the past 13 moderate-to-strong El Nino winters since 1959.

Outside of El Nino years, though, another map shows the Adirondacks as an anomaly on the East Coast, being a chunk of land with no real change in snowfall on average since 1959. The El Nino year made December in particular a rough one for snow.

“A record amount of land area over North America was snow-free for December,” Whiteface Mountain Field Station Science Manager Scott McKim said in January.

“It was Canada’s least snow-covered December of the past 58 years, while the lower 48 (states) and North America experienced their third least snow-covered December,” he wrote in an email in January, citing map data from the Rutgers Global Snow Lab.

Recent weather

In December, only 13 days logged average temperatures below freezing in Saranac Lake, according to data from the Weather Underground. The mercury even closed in on 50 degrees on at least six days. The peaks and valleys of the fluctuating temperature make it an uphill battle for snow and ice growth, even with the temperature dropping below 10 on six days through the month.

There was also minimal snow accumulation in December, with whatever snow had built up through small events earlier in the month completely wiped out by torrential rain and flooding on Dec. 18.

The temperature has fluctuated wildly in the past week. Over the course of three hours on Tuesday morning, the temperature rose from 18 to 53 degrees. Then, on Wednesday afternoon to Thursday morning, it plummeted from 57 to 6 degrees.

Both Tuesday and Wednesday set high temperature records for Feb. 27 and 28 in Saranac Lake.

Wednesday’s high of 60-degree temperatures broke the previous 59-degree record which was set in 2000, and Thursday’s high of 58 eclipsed the previous “long-standing warm anomaly record” of 55, which was set in 1955, Boyd said.

After freezing on Wednesday night, a warmer weekend with highs predicted in the 40s to 50s and lows predicted above freezing, the temperature is expected to keep rising next week, according to the NWS, reaching into the 60s by Tuesday.

Ice shrinkage

The changing climate can also be seen in the ice.

“Ice on is on average 17.8 days later than it was in 1903,” Brendan Wiltse, senior research scientist at Paul Smith’s College’s Adirondack Watershed Institute, wrote in an email in January. The total ice cover period is also 24 days shorter than it was then.

The 2015-16 season was the first year in AWI’s record keeping over more than a century that Mirror Lake in the village of Lake Placid didn’t freeze by the end of the calendar year.

This year, Mirror Lake froze on Dec. 22, which was later than normal, Wiltse said. In 2018, it froze on Dec. 23.

Since locals began tracking the ice on Mirror Lake in 1903, it has only taken this long to ice over three times — all since 1998. Up until 1984, it never took past Dec. 20 to ice over.

Since then, this has happened six times. There is a gap in the ice data from 2005 to 2010 and 2013 to 2014.

The two shortest seasons for ice cover on Mirror Lake in the past century have occurred in the past two decades: 84 days in 2016 and 96 days in 2012. The average period for ice cover on Mirror Lake since 1903 is 140 days.

Boyd said the region should see a warming trend over the next week, but much slower with a building high pressure. Heading into March, the sun angle is getting higher, he added, so opportunities for bitter cold outbreaks are diminishing.


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