Officials report Maine had a mild winter, leading to a possible increase in ticks

Snowfall has been well below average this winter in Portland and temperature swings have melted rapidly, continuing a trend that scientists say is consistent with long-term climate change.

Portland has received 44.1 inches of snow in the past four months, compared to an average of 66.1 inches, said meteorologist Hunter Tubbs at the National Weather Service office in Gray. “We only got two-thirds of what we would normally get,” Tubbs said.

When it snowed, the powder did not drag. Average temperatures over the past four months have been slightly above average, but there have been some wild fluctuations.

On January 31, the temperature was seven degrees below zero in Portland. On Feb. 23, it was a mild 66 degrees, breaking the previous record for the date of 61 degrees set in 1990. “That’s a 70-degree swing,” Tubbs said.

“It was a horrible winter,” said Arnold Rosario Jr., a retiree from Windham. “We had more freezing rain. Walking is more dangerous.

Rosario, who battled freezing rain while taking frequent walks with his dog, said he’ll take in piles of fluffy snow any day this winter.

Windham’s Arnold Rosario Jr. was a postman in Portland when a blizzard dumped 16 to 18 inches of snow and monster snowdrifts on the city 40 years ago on Wednesday. Like many, he would take fluffy snow over the freezing rain that has been common in recent winters. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

Rosario recalls 40 years ago this Wednesday when a spring blizzard shut down Portland and other parts of the northeast. The blizzard dropped 16 to 18 inches of snow on the city, an unusual amount this late in the year, even when snowy winters were common.

Rosario was a postal worker in Portland in April 1982 and remembers the high winds and monstrous drifts that made the roads impassable. “I remember it like it was yesterday”

Scientists say climate change does not rule out the possibility of a spring snowstorm. But with temperatures expected to stay in the 40s and 50s this week, the forecast calls for more rain instead.

START LATER, END EARLIER

Sean Birkel, a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, said global warming means Maine’s winters are “shrinking in duration.” As in many parts of the country, winter has become shorter, a trend that will continue, Birkel said.

“What we’re seeing is winter tending to come later. Lakes and ponds are freezing later in the year instead of freezing in early December,” especially in the southern half of the state. Some lakes don’t freeze until January, and lakes in southern Maine might not have much ice, he said, and snow and snowpack on the ground are less reliable.

At the Climate Change Institute, scientists have been mapping cold and warm during Maine’s winters since 1895. Winters can vary from year to year, but in general there is a clear warming trend.

“There is a general trend towards warmer winters. We are not seeing cold days, (but) more instances of temperatures well above freezing,” Birkel said. “We don’t see the very cold that we saw in the 1900s.” Historically, Penobscot Bay and the harbors froze over in the early 1900s. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

“We can still have a cold winter and with decent snow. But over time, winters will continue to decrease, especially in coastal and central parts of Maine, Birkel said.

The average temperature in Portland from December through March was 29 degrees, slightly above the historical average of 28.3 degrees, according to National Weather Service data. But the cold came late and the warm-up came early. December was warmer than normal. January was colder. February and March were warmer again.

Warmer winters and less snow mean fewer opportunities for snowmobiling, ice fishing, cross country skiing, sledding and pond skating. Milder winters also mean Lyme disease can be more common, as warmer temperatures allow ticks, which carry Lyme disease, to thrive.

In southern Maine, milder temperatures and lack of snow have led to an early migration of amphibians and the return of spring peepers. The so-called Big Night, when frogs and salamanders emerge from hibernation and migrate to vernal pools, occurred March 31 in the Portland area, a few weeks earlier than normal.

“I suspect (the big night) will start to happen earlier more consistently over the next decade, but we don’t have enough data to say that’s the case yet,” said Sally Stockwell, director of conservation for the Audubon Society of Maine.

In general, the state as a whole is warming, but the impacts are less evident in northern Maine.

NORTHERN MAINE LESS AFFECTED

“Northern Maine still has decent snowpacks and nice normal winters, but the duration is decreasing,” Birkel said. “The lakes tend to freeze earlier in the spring, but not as much as the southern half of the state, where they feel the impact of warming winter weather more.”

The Caribou National Weather Service office reports that northern Maine has had a rather old-fashioned winter this year. Caribou received 119.3 inches of snow, above the average 109.6 inches, Weather Service meteorologist Chris Norcross said.

This year’s mild winter in southern and central Maine has wiped out some traditional entertainment with a number of festivals canceled.

The Old Orchard Beach Winter Carnival, scheduled for February 26, was canceled due to a lack of snow, as was the Woodlawn Winter Carnival in Ellsworth. In Lisbon, the Beaver Park winter festival, which usually attracts 400 people, was canceled due to fluctuating temperatures and lack of snow. And the Maine Audubon canceled its Feb. 19 winter carnival at Gilsland Farm, citing a lack of snow and dangerous conditions. “We have patches of ice in the fields, in the orchard and on the trails,” Maine Audubon said on its website.

Bob Stickney of the Rumford Polar Bears Snowmobile Club said this winter “was very bad”.

“We averaged 80.9 inches of snow,” he said. “This year we only got 66 inches. It’s been a short season. This year we started later and had to finish early. The snowmobiling ended in early March this year, he said. “Years ago we were riding in April.”

There was enough ice on Sebago Lake for the annual ice fishing tournament in February, but that’s no longer a certainty. “We were very happy that the previous week we had enough low temperatures day and night. It froze the lake even better,” said organizer Cyndy Bell.

“I remember when I was a kid the lake was frozen all the time,” said Sebago Fire Department Chief Phil Strike. “That doesn’t happen often now.”

The wetter storms this winter have made it more difficult to deal with the roads.

“We prefer nice dry snow, even if it’s a lot,” Maine Turnpike manager Peter Mills said. “With snow, you push it away. You have finished. But along with sleet, ice and rain, it freezes and coats the highways,” forcing crews to continue salting and scraping.

When sleet storms hit, the freezing rain can be like “concrete falling on the roads. We have to do a lot of salting. We would rather clear 12 inches of snow,” said Portland Public Works Manager Christopher Branch.

An abandoned car lies in a thick snowdrift on Franklin Street on April 7, 1982, the day after an end-of-season blizzard dropped 16 inches of snow on the city. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

‘IT WAS A SURPRISE’

Branch was working for Lewiston Public Works on April 6, 1982 and also clearly remembers the surprise snowstorm.

“We had 16 or 18 inches of snow a week before I went to Florida,” Branch said with a laugh. “We knew a storm was coming, (but) any time you have this much snow in April, it was a surprise.”

So much snow fell on Maine that much of Lewiston, like Portland, essentially shut down for a few days, Branch said.

Rosario, the retired postman, remembers deep waste drifts outside his front door. “I couldn’t get out of my yard,” he said. “People couldn’t come in to work. Cars were stuck in snowdrifts. Cars were stuck in the middle of Congress Street.

In Portland, only about 10% of letter carriers were able to get to work, and some of them had to stay overnight at the Forest Avenue post office, Rosario said.

It took the city’s snowplow trucks a while to attack the snowdrifts, he said. When the plows came out, “they couldn’t get down the street, there were so many blocked vehicles.”

Despite the clear warming trend and less snowfall, a spring blizzard could still occur under the right conditions, said Birkel, a researcher at the Climate Change Institute.

Branch believes him. “That wouldn’t surprise me at all,” he said.

Even with the forecast calling for mild temperatures and rain, Portland’s snowplow trucks are still in winter mode, Branch said. “We will be there for a week and a half.

Writer Lana Cohen contributed to this report.


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