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Study: By 2050, Mass. Winters Could Have As Few As 20 Days With Temps Below Freezing

In Massachusetts, there are currently about 90 days in a winter where temperatures reach below freezing. That number could be reduced down to 20 by the year 2050 due to greenhouse gas emissions. (Steven Senne/AP)
In Massachusetts, there are currently about 90 days in a winter where temperatures reach below freezing. That number could be reduced down to 20 by the year 2050 due to greenhouse gas emissions. (Steven Senne/AP)
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Winter is coming to Massachusetts — but future winters in the state could bring significantly less frigid weather along with them.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and published in the October issue of the Journal of Climate projects that, by the year 2050, there could be as few as 20 days in the state where temperatures hit below the freezing mark.

Currently, that number stands at about 90 days a year.

Michael Rawlins, lead author of the study and manager of UMass Amherst's Climate Science Research Center, says the projected decrease is a result of the continued emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases. For his research, Rawlins used projections in which emissions continued to rise aggressively. He said picking such a model made sense because the planet is now at a point in which temperatures will rise this century — regardless of any actions taken to reduce emissions.

"It's really getting more unlikely that any actions we take today [to reduce greenhouse gas emissions] or in the years to come will seriously, profoundly reduce the impacts we might see by mid-century or so," Rawlins said in an interview. "We're essentially, some might say, 'baked in.' "

Massachusetts won't be alone in having fewer subfreezing days by 2050; the entire North American continent as a whole will see less freezing weather as well. However, Rawlins says the decrease in subfreezing days will vary depending on where you live.

"Some places in northern Canada," Rawlins said, "they may typically at present see something more like 120 or 130 days each winter that is below freezing. By mid-century, they may only lose 10 or 20 of those."

Rawlins says other areas of the U.S. — such as southern Pennsylvania or the Midwest — could similarly see shortened freezing seasons. Separately, portions of New England could see a loss of freezing temperatures entirely.

"Most troubling, there will be parts of North America which will completely lose their frozen season," he said. "Some places like southern Connecticut and Rhode Island, which typically see maybe two or three weeks of subfreezing weather at present, they may no longer see freezing temperatures in winter."

Winters with less freezing temperatures may sound appealing to New Englanders, but that could have severe consequences on the area's ecosystems and economy.

Rawlins notes that warming winters could profoundly disrupt ecosystems, particularly of insects such as mosquitoes and ticks that have come to expect cold, freezing winters.

And while warmer winters would mean heating costs would go down for consumers, Rawlins projects summers will also be warmer — so cooling costs would go up.

"There's no way we can cast this as good news that winters will warm substantially," Rawlins said.

Additionally, Rawlins says wintertime temperatures could increase by 4 to 5 degrees by 2050 if action isn't taken to significantly reduce emission levels soon.

"The future is in our hands, so to speak," Rawlins said. "We're going to see additional warming, but now if we want to avoid the most worrisome, troublesome impacts, we need to reduce our emissions beginning very very soon.

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Bob Shaffer is a producer in WBUR’s newscast unit.

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