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I’m Not Dreaming of a White Christmas


Yesterday, a crisp and sunny morning, I noticed as I pulled out of the school parking lot at 9am that a woman outside a nearby house was raking leaves in her shorts. This would make sense on a crisp sunny day in September or October, when autumn typically announces itself via a nip in the morning air and a carpet of leaves from the Catskill Forest. But four days before Christmas, any leaves should have been long buried under winter snow and the weather should typically be sub-freezing through most, if not all of the day.

This morning, I paused to take a picture of Hunter Mountain on my drive down to Phoenicia.

This is the view one might just expect in November, when the ski mountain pounds its snow guns to open up a few token runs for Thanksgiving, but by Christmas, they can usually rely on plenty of natural snow to blanket the mountain and turn Christmas week into one of their busiest of the year. (Or, put it this way, the field in the front of the shot should be white, not green.) Yet the mountain web site, which I normally figure to exaggerate the snowfall count, lists this winter’s natural snowfall as a whopping… half an inch.

Each of the last three years I got out skiing in November. Last year I took a course that started in early December. Right now, my skis are still in the basement, and for the first time since becoming a “weekender” (and then full time resident) I don’t imagine taking to the mountain before Christmas Day. Even with the manmade snow, it just doesn’t look or feel right.

We could consider this an anomaly – only five winters ago, our first as weekenders, the region had its heaviest annual snowfall in decades, followed by a particular cold winter in ’03-’04 – but for the news from elsewhere. No sooner do I sit at my desk this morning and start this piece than the BBC World Service News presents a report on the calamitous conditions in the European Alps, where the lack of snow has forced cancellation not just of tourist holidays but World Cup competitions too. And that follows the lead item: Britain is fogged in and Heathrow Airport (built on a swamp, mind) is closed down.

Meantime, Americans out west might look at these reports with ambivalence or even envy, for parts of Colorado got over four feet of snow in 24 hours this week and the Denver airport is still closed as I type. Snowbird Mountain in Utah, where I experienced nirvana with Campbell last spring, has already had 111” and winter has hardly started. If you like snow, the Rockies are clearly the place to live these days.

So: climate change or just a few weird winters to follow some unsettling summers? It’s hard not to conclude that they’re one and the same thing, isn’t it? There’s a big part of me that says the weather can’t change this rapidly due to climate change in just four years – 2002 seems like the last year of relatively “normal” weather by my own unscientific standards – and yet there’s a bigger part of me that has to recognize this is exactly what’s happening. Dreaming of a white Christmas? Used to be a given in the Catskills as in the Alps. This year will prove a strange exception.

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