How climate change is altering my winter

© Nina Munteanu

I’m Canadian, and I love the snow. When I grew up in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, we enjoyed a brisk cold winter with deep snow for a good six months of the year. I’ve since lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, which experiences a milder regional climate; I now live in the Kawarthas of Ontario, which has a similar regional climate to what I experienced growing up in Quebec. Living in the Kawarthas reminds me of my childhood days with winter snow.

I love how the first snow of the season often comes from the sky in a thick passion. Huge flakes of unique beauty would settle on my coat sleeves and within minutes I’d be covered in snow. I would stand enraptured, arms out to catch snowflakes, and study each individual with admiration.

Snow wraps everything in a blanket of soft acceptance. It creates a dazzling face on a dark earth. If refuses to distinguish between artificial and natural. It covers everything—decorated house, shabby old car, willowy trees, manicured lawn—beneath its white mantle. It quiets the Earth.

I often walk a trail through the forest after a fresh snow has fallen and the sun reveals itself on a crisp day. Like a balancing tightrope walker, the snow piles itself on everything, from fat fir branch to thin black locust twig. The snow then gives itself to the vagaries of a playful wind. Occasionally, a gust would send a shower of glitter snow dust raining down on me.

I particularly enjoy walking a trail in the evening light after a fresh snow. Boots crunch on the fresh crisp snow that glistens in the moonlight. Each step is its own symphony of textured sound. A kind of collaboration with the deep of the night and Nature’s own whisperings.

Since moving to the Kawarthas, close to the Otonabee River, I walk daily along the river and its riparian forest. Winters here have graced us with a variety of typical winter morphology: thick and copious snowfall, enduring fog, imaginative ice formations on the river, and glittering hoarfrost and rime everywhere else.  The first snowfall can come in November, large flakes falling on still fully-clothed shrubs and trees, creating a painter’s landscape of reds, yellows, and greens dusted in a white blanket. This is when some mornings mist will rise like a cold breath from the river or flow and pool in depressions of the rolling Kawartha drumlins. On cold nights in December, hoarfrost will form filigreed ‘leaves’ over everything—ground, sticks, ice and even snow. For a brief magical moment, this miniature crystal forest glitters like a field of jewels in the morning sun before vanishing by coffee break time. The river ices up in December, first with frazil that froths and fizzes as it coagulates into grease ice then shuga and finally to ice pancakes that crowd the shore, nudging each other like suburban women at a sale, then stitching themselves together into solid ice sheets attached to shore. By January and February, all is in place and the deep winter is upon us until ice break up and snow melt in late April into May. The river ice extends out from the bays in vast thick sheets where people can skate. The snow forms deep banks and drifts everywhere through which only snowshoes or skis can penetrate.

Lately (in the past few years) I’ve noticed that this pattern has become interrupted by extremely mild weather throughout the winter season. January can look like November, with the exception of the absence of leaves on trees and shrubs; the greens and browns of other vegetation such as grasses, forbs and forest litter can still be revealed. The fogs of early winter may also return. The river ice sheets may fragment and flow downstream, only to reform as waters refreeze. The formerly uninterrupted reign of winter is waning and this saddens me with feelings of solastalgia. The Kawarthas still get good dumps of snow and magical frost. But for each champagne powder snow day, and hoarfrost glitter, there is a melt day, when snow melts and it rains, turning the parking lot into a skating rink as temperatures plummet with nightfall.

I grew up in a part of Canada that experienced four distinct seasons. While spring and fall exemplify transition into and out of the two stable seasons of summer and winter, this is no longer the case in many parts of Canada, where formerly well-defined and uninterrupted winters and summers could be predicted. Now all the seasons experience transition and unpredictable phenomena. Winter temperatures in the Kawarthas were often stable at just below zero Centigrade to minus 20°; they now fluctuate more highly from minus 20° to +10.

A report by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies released earlier this month confirmed that global temperatures in 2022 were 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the average baseline period of 1951 to 1980 and 2 degrees warmer than the late 19th century average. They reported that the past nine years have been the warmest since modern recordkeeping began in 1880.

The winter that I grew up with is changing into something else. It, like the changing world, is in transition. There is no denying that global warming is upon us and each region is uniquely experiencing its effects. Climate is changing and the environment is adapting to that change.

While solastalgia creeps into my psyche at times, I am assiduously learning to pace myself with my changing environment. As the regional weather adapts to the warming climate, I am learning to adapt too. One way is through the equipment I use: I still use my snowshoes (a recent gift from my son) in winter; but, more often, I use snow/rain boots with crampons for terrain that includes wet snow, slush, and ice. Being prepared for change allows me to accept it with grace. I have learned to cherish those moments when fresh snow falls from the heavens like confetti. I charge outside in my snow gear and enjoy it while it’s there. I have learned to live in discovery and to thrill in the unpredictable. Each day is a gift of unknown and thrilling surprise.

I have learned to live in the moment, to cherish that moment as a gift.

Because, even change is a gift.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and internationally published novelist of eco-fiction and science fiction. In addition to eight published novels, Nina has written award-nominated short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice. Her recent book Water Is…The Meaning of Water was chosen by Margaret Atwood in The New York Times as her pick for ‘The Year in Reading’