Williamstown’s weak winter: Climate change’s tangible effect on our campus

Rosa Kirk-Davidoff

I was studying abroad this fall, and when I returned to campus for Winter Study, I was hoping for a snowy Williamstown winter. So far, we haven’t really gotten that. On January 11, the first Saturday of the term, the high temperature reached 63°F, and since then we’ve had multiple days with temperatures in the 40s. One storm brought us a blanket of snow, but it is melting as I write this on a weekend with more rain than snow. Williamstown’s multi-year average temperature for January is 23°F, and as of January 26, this month’s average temperature has been 30°F. It’s not just Williamstown — this January has been unusually warm all across the contiguous United States.   

This type of winter weather elicits mixed reactions. The Jiminy-lovers complain about the low quality of the slopes while the Floridians enjoy being able to wear one fewer layer. Everyone can agree, however, that this weather does not seem normal for January. In a conversation I had with a classmate who grew up in Williamstown, he said, “I feel like now, with climate change, winter is just one really long March.” People often connect unusual weather, like that of this Winter Study, with climate change. Why have we had a warm January? Is it connected to climate change? I was curious about these questions and tried to find some answers. 

On January 10th, The Washington Post published an article titled “What happened to winter, and will it ever show up?” In it, they describe the atmospheric processes leading to the lack of cold weather, explaining, “the polar vortex, the zone of frigid air in the high latitudes surrounded by powerful winds, has been unusually strong. When the polar vortex is intense, the coldest air over the Northern Hemisphere remains bottled up in the Arctic.” This means that Alaska, Canada and Greenland are experiencing especially cold weather while we get 60° days.  

In addition to the strong polar vortex, the article explains, this winter started with an unusually small “cold pool,” the area of cold air that can determine the strength of winter weather across North America. Research by meteorologist Jonathan Martin has shown this cold pool shrinking over time and has tied this to climate change.  

So yes, our warm January can be linked to climate change. But there are also many other factors that control our day-to-day weather. An article from Live Science titled “Warmer, Wetter Than Usual Winter Headed for Much of US” pointed out that 2019 was an El Niño year, meaning that Pacific Ocean currents sent warm and wet air towards North America. What we experience each day is controlled by large global forces like El Niño as well as small local changes in wind direction and air pressure.  

It has been shown multiple times that people’s belief in climate change is affected by their personal experience with the weather. People across the political spectrum are more likely to say they believe in climate change when asked on a hot day.  This shows the importance of direct experience in people’s ideas about the issue, and as we continue to see unusual heat and extreme weather events, it is likely that people will become more willing to support measures to reduce carbon emissions. However, we still need to be careful in how we talk about climate change. “It’s hot today, so climate change must be real” is just as weak of an argument as “It’s cold today, so climate change must not be real.” If some people can use the first argument, then others can use the second one. 

This is why the difference between weather and climate is so important to understand. Climate, by definition, is measured over time, and cannot be measured in a single day or month. As college-aged people, we do have direct experience of the climate — for example, many plants now bloom and grow leaves earlier in the spring than they did 20 years ago — but these changes take careful attention to the natural world to notice. One t-shirt day in January should not be confused for a representation of the climate. I’m glad that the warm weather is making people talk about climate change, but I hope the conversations extend past “Wow, it’s hot out. Climate change sure does suck.” 

Rosa Kirk-Davidoff ’21 is an environmental studies major from Albany, N.Y.