Golden dune grass on a sandy beach on the shores of Lake Huron.
Golden dune grass on a sandy beach on the shores of Lake Huron.

Less snow might seem like a blessing, but the warmth of early winter invites another polar vortex in the coming month. And there’s a deep cost for that reprieve.

DETROIT, Mich.—Monday’s weather forecast for Detroit includes a high temperature of 35 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s slightly higher than the average high in January. Over the next two weeks, that warmer-than-average weather will be the norm, and expert scientists say that will usher in extreme weather conditions.

Not only do these conditions harm Michigan’s sense of identity, but they threaten Michigan agriculture. And, ultimately, lighter snowfall in early winter contributes to the recurring polar vortex phenomenon that makes the cold and snow markedly worse when it does finally arrive. 

Those concerns come into sharp focus as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) finds the probability of higher than ordinary temperatures in Michigan this winter is nearly 90%, reports MLive.

NOAA points to a phenomenon caused by the unseasonable warmth creating a Sudden Stratospheric Warming. These SSWs can affect weather from the edge of space down to the ground, changing wind patterns and causing the polar vortices that have brought out frigid Februaries in recent years. 

SEE ALSO: Indigenous Michiganders Led the Charge in Shutting Down Line 5

Unseasonably warm weather since November, therefore, can cause dramatically cold weather later in Detroit’s winter. While popularly conceptualized as causing higher temperatures, global climate change in fact creates more stark and dramatic weather conditions, like Michigan has seen in recent winters with early warmth causing the SSWs that bring about a polar vortex. 

And that’s changed Michigan winters, possibly forever. 

Cold, snowy winters have shaped Michigan culture, from ice fishing to snowmobiling to comparing the region to Game of Thrones’ Winterfell. The problem is, these days Michigan is seeing winter change. 

“The planet overall is warming, but states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois are getting warmer, faster,” Don Wuebbles, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois, told the Detroit Free Press.

By 2080, snowfall in the Great Lakes basin is expected to fall by almost half without dramatic action on climate change. Even under ideal conditions for the environment, snowfall will decrease by more than a quarter. This trades the traditional Michigan lake-effect snow for lake-effect rainstorms that can flood low-lying areas. Snow also reflects solar energy, helping regulate year-round temperature. Worse, lacking snow causes a massive disruption to Michigan’s ecosystem, where wildlife relies on that fresh powder to survive the winter. 

GET INVOLVED: Keep Going Michigan: Meet the Environmental Groups Fighting for Mother Earth. Consider Joining Them Too.

That reality is one few states are facing more dramatically than Michigan. Data reported by MLive showed only Minnesota, New York, and Wisconsin warmed their winters faster than Michigan over the past 50 years. Grand Rapids tends to have 52 days per winter warmer than average. And while that sounds good to those digging their cars out of snowbanks, a lack of snow can accelerate climate change and damage the ability of farms to provide food, risking a climate-induced famine.

“In the more than 30 years I’ve been a meteorologist, I’ve always enjoyed sitting down each day and taking a look at the latest computer model forecasts of the weather for the upcoming ten days,’’ Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for the site Weather Underground, told ThinkProgress. “That pleasure began becoming tinged with anxiety beginning in 2010, when we seemingly crossed a threshold into a new more extreme climate regime. The relatively stable climate of the 20th Century that I grew up with is no more.’’

As ThinkProgress explained, the impacts of what Masters, Fredrickson, and Sullivan have seen are disastrous. The “false spring” caused by climate change and unseasonably warm weather coaxes plant and animal life hibernating to survive winter to awaken prematurely, and when the false spring ends and winter reasserts itself, the frost can devastate the vulnerable reemerging life. In 2012, a false spring killed $500 million in fruits and vegetables, according to a study conducted by Michigan State and Cornell.

And, as snowmobile racer Karl Schwartz told the Free Press, the cost of the more extreme temperature shocks in winter have a personal impact as well. Schwartz is having trouble finding places to race. From Ironwood to Sault Ste. Marie, Schwartz can’t find reliable frost in the Upper Peninsula. And for those cities that rely on winter tourism, the lack of snow is a blow to the local economy.

ICYMI: In Michigan, Clean Energy Jobs Are the Future

“In spite of our best efforts to move our calendar around, and water these race tracks weeks in advance, we’re still having to move dates, cancel dates and race in less than perfect conditions because of the warm weather,” he said. “This has been a consistent problem for us, especially the past few years. It’s been going on longer than that, but especially the past five years, it’s been really, really problematic.”

And the end to Michigan winters as we know them doesn’t need dramatic changes in winter temperatures. With average January temperatures in the low 30s, even a slight rise in winter temperatures will change lake-effect snow into lake-effect rainstorms, replacing shoveling the sidewalk with potential flooding while harming Michigan agriculture and irrevocably changing Michigan culture. 

All without ending cold snaps from polar vortices, harsh enough to bring to mind the worst of Michigan’s winters from years past that may never come again.