Between head-spinning temperature swings, historic wildfires, brutal cold spells and powerful storms, this past winter could be dramatic and in some cases devastating. As the season nears its official end, people across the United States are grappling with how different the season looks now compared to how they remember it, and the range of emotions those changes invoke.

If you’ve noticed that the coldest months of the year don’t seem to get so cold anymore, you’re not alone. For most of the nation, winter is the fastest warming season, according to analysis from Climate Central.

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Map by Climate Central

How the season looks depends on where you live, but warming winters raise alarm among climate experts because higher-than-usual temperatures can influence a long list of environmental phenomena that affect the well-being of both people and ecosystems.

One region may see more pests that stick around longer than they used to, for example, while another might experience a reduction in crucial mountain snowpack. Those changes can have major implications for the natural and built environments, with cascading consequences for us and for wildlife.

READ MORE:‘We’re frankly astonished.’ Why 2023’s record-breaking heat surprised scientists

Unless humans dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the planet will experience “a worsening” of the conditions we’re already seeing, said Heidi Roop, an assistant professor of climate science at the University of Minnesota. Unusual events that were once considered one-offs — what she refers to as “postcards from the future” — are reminders that climate change is already here, and we’re on track to see far more of its effects.

Record Warm Temperatures Expected In Chicago
Chicagoans outside on an unusually warm winter day in 2024. Scott Olson/ Getty Images

How changing winters are affecting you

For many people, experiencing unusual or dramatic winter weather events — like catastrophic flooding in January, or a balmy 60 degree day in February — can be a source of concern and distress.

The term “solastalgia” encompasses that feeling, said Elizabeth Burakowski, a climate scientist at the University of New Hampshire. The word, coined by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, refers to the anxiety some people experience over perceived changes in their local environments.

“[Albrecht] describes it as a homesickness – you’re still at home, but you miss home because it’s changed so distinctly, and it’s no longer recognizable,” she said.

PBS NewsHour asked readers about the changes they’re noticing in their communities during the winter season, and how those make them feel. Nearly 250 people across the country shared their stories with us, a handful of which you can read below.

“We are marching towards a profoundly different future and, in some cases, we don’t even know what that entirely will mean, except for that it’s going to amplify many of the costs and consequences [of climate change],” said Roop.

But that doesn’t mean humanity is powerless. The choices we make today, Roop emphasized, determine what our collective future holds.

Here’s a look at some major ways winter has changed across the U.S. as a result of climate change, according to researchers and the most recent National Climate Assessment (NCA5), a periodic report that details the present and future challenges of climate change.

The bad news about less snow

Few people relish shoveling out their cars or walkways in a blizzard’s aftermath. But snow is still for many a cherished, cozy hallmark of winter, and it plays a major role in lots of ecosystems, too.

Due to climate change, though, more precipitation is falling as rain instead of snow as winter brings fewer cold days across much of the country, said Darrian Bertrand, climate assessment specialist at the Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program at the University of Oklahoma.

Around 80 percent of weather monitoring stations across the contiguous U.S. have seen a drop in the amount of precipitation that falls as snow, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Across the eastern U.S., rapid warming in winter is particularly notable at night, when temperatures usually are lowest, said Elizabeth Burakowski, a climate scientist at the University of New Hampshire. When they don’t consistently drop below freezing, a “critical threshold” is crossed, she said.

READ MORE:Climate change is hitting close to home for nearly 2 out of 3 Americans, poll finds

“That just spells bad news for any sort of frozen state of water that you might be desiring for either snow or for ice, and all of the ecosystem and community benefits that frozen water brings to us,” Burakowski said.

Corn is harvested from a field on Hodgen Farm in Roachdale
Corn is harvested from a field in Roachdale, Indiana, in 2019. Bryan Woolston/Reuters

'That's their livelihood'

Sarah Hammond
Indiana

Winters have brought less snow, more rain and more freezing rain to northwest Indiana over the years, according to Sarah Hammond. Along with the weather changes have come more flooding. A forested area near her property used to have standing water during the spring, but now that water is present throughout much of the winter. That’s meant more mosquitoes, which she’s tried to keep at bay by putting up bat houses.

Her family raises livestock and rents out land to a local farmer. Hammond said that local crops are suffering due to erratic weather patterns throughout the year. That includes when temperatures drop back below freezing unexpectedly in the springtime, which can delay the point at which it’s normally time to start planting.

“We’ve got a lot of farmers in our family, so [climate change is] concerning because that’s their livelihood,” Hammond said. “And a lot of people don’t fully understand that people in America don’t eat if it’s not for the farmers.”

One of those benefits is spring snowmelt that feeds water supplies particularly for millions of people in Western states. That includes Colorado, where mountain snowpack is a key source of water, said John Fasullo, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

He noted that in Colorado, the snow that typically sticks around at higher elevations offers a “natural reservoir” that melts gradually through the summer, supplying water to surrounding communities. But climate change more quickly depletes this reservoir, Fasullo said. He added that the supply doesn’t last through the summer the way it used to, leaving it up to artificial reservoirs “fill the void.”

Snowpack also has an effect on wildfires. The ground stays wet longer when snow remains through the spring and summer, which the EPA said influences when fire season starts and how severe it will be.

Many creatures that hunker down for the winter need the snowpack for crucial habitat. That’s because the temperature is more stable beneath a few inches of snow, where animals are also generally better protected from predators, Burakowski said.

Without that layer, she added, the ground can freeze solid, posing a challenge to animals that rely on subterranean burrows for shelter.

In places that don’t typically see snow — like California and other Western states — winters are becoming wetter, causing storms that can sometimes bring catastrophic events like flooding and landslides. Meanwhile, if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trajectory, the bulk of the snow in New England is projected to disappear by the end of the century, said Pamela Templer, professor and chair of the department of biology at Boston University.

Economic sectors and culture suffer, too

Climate change is associated with costly damage, and it can wreak havoc across the economy.

Agriculture is particularly reliant on the seasons. Fasullo noted that in California’s Central Valley, winter nights that are too warm are associated with decreased yields among fruit and nut trees.

That’s also a problem in the Southeast, where warmer winter temperatures are associated with fewer “chill hours” that fruits need to grow, plus earlier blooms among some crops, according to the NCA5.

READ MORE:Why extreme cold weather events still happen in a warming world

Winter recreation takes a major hit, too. Skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling enthusiasts across the country are facing shorter, less consistent seasons for their sports of choice. Burakowski noted that although some industry players have invested in snowmaking equipment to make up for lacking natural snowfall, that alternative isn’t yet consistent across those sports, and more casual participants have few options.

Snowfall in Seattle
People sled down Seattle's Kite Hill in 2021. Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

'I haven't taken the kids’ sleds out'

Colleen Venter
Seattle

Colleen Venter recalls frosty mornings walking to her Seattle school bus stop about 20 years ago. These days, overnight temperatures don’t drop below freezing as often as they used to.

Longstanding winter activities have taken a hit from warmer winters, Venter noted. “I haven’t taken the kids’ sleds out at all this year — they’ve just been sitting collecting dust in the garage,” she said.

Venter’s daffodils and tulips are coming up weeks or even months earlier than usual. And one evening in late January, she stepped outside only to hear something she described as “creepy”: chirping crickets and croaking frogs, sounds usually reserved for summer.

When she thinks about climate change, she said she feels concerned for her own young children, wondering what the world will look like when they’re older.

“For a casual skier like myself, I typically like to go just right out my back door into the trails that are available in my community,” Burakowski said. “And I can’t do that now when there’s not enough snow.”

As part of a recent project, Burakowski and her collaborators conducted interviews with people who act as guides for ice climbing around New Hampshire’s Mount Washington.

The relatively niche sport can be unsafe when temperatures get high enough that the ice melts.

“In talking with them, they clearly experience what the data shows,” Burakowski said. “You almost don’t need the data — they know, they’re out there every day, and they’re experiencing it.”

Climate change also affects hunting as a pastime and food source. In the Southern Great Plains, drought and warming temperatures are projected to alter where animals live and contribute to decreasing weight and size among some species of prey, Bertrand noted, pointing to the NCA5.

“Whenever we see warmer temperatures, we see shifting habitats and ranges in plant and animal species, which we expect to continue as temperatures increase over time,” she said.

A boon for pests

There are few winners when it comes to warmer winters, but pests like ticks and mosquitoes and invasive species rank among the lucky. Higher temperatures help them survive the season and spread into new territory.

In the case of disease vectors and hosts, that expansion can pose a threat to human health, Bertrand said. Animals suffer those consequences, too. Moose, for example, are especially under siege due to more prolific ticks.

READ MORE:Landmark report details how human activities can disrupt animal migrations

California impacted by another wet winter storm
A vehicle turns away from a flooded road in California in 2024. Mike Blake/Reuters

‘Our most vulnerable’

Diana Rohini LaVigne
Fremont, Calif.

For Diana Rohini LaVigne, the round-trip commute to her child’s school – usually around 40 minutes – ballooned to two hours in late February, thanks to a nasty winter rainstorm. The main road closed down for about a week, forcing her to take a longer route.

Today, the road remains unstable and partially washed away, so LaVigne’s drive still takes more time than it did before the storm.

Last winter, her child’s school closed for a week after a flood caused around $1.5 million worth of damage.

The rural community around her child’s school has banded together to share information and find solutions after destructive weather events. But LaVigne is worried about others in the region, like people experiencing homelessness in nearby San Francisco.

“How do we protect our most vulnerable community members due to these extreme winter weather events? I don’t know the answer to that, and that’s scary,” she said.

“Cold winters have been a natural mechanism for containing pests and disease outbreak… And we aren’t having those as regularly,” Roop said. She noted that in the Midwest, for example, cold weather days kill off pests like pine bark beetles, which can take a major toll on forests. The Southwest is also seeing more outbreaks of these beetles amid warmer winters, according to the EPA.

Invasive species pose a major threat to ecosystems across the country. In the Northeast, persistent cold snaps as severe as -30°F are key for helping to keep destructive pests like southern pine beetles and hemlock woolly adelgids at bay, Burakowski said.

Worse potholes, and other threats to infrastructure

Wherever you live, your local infrastructure was built to operate under certain conditions. As winter weather becomes more erratic, things are bound to hit more bumps in the road – in some places, literally.

In Minnesota, more freeze-thaw cycles — or temperatures that fluctuate above and below freezing — are exacerbating potholes on roadways, Roop said.

She also noted that snow typically acts as a kind of insulator that limits how far a deep freeze can penetrate the ground. But when cold can reach farther into the soil — like in the southern parts of the Midwest, which Roop said is projected to see less persistent snowpack over time — it can jeopardize infrastructure like septic systems that were originally supposed to be buried deep enough to avoid the threat of freezing temperatures.

READ MORE:How winter weather can affect your drinking water

Extreme weather events can reveal critical weak points in larger infrastructure systems, too.

In February 2021, the central U.S. saw a rare but not unprecedented winter storm that led to extended power outages and boil water advisories in many communities, Bertrand said. More than 200 people died as a direct or indirect result of the storm.

Black and brown communities shouldered a disproportionate burden in terms of losing power. Non-white populations experienced more of those outages at the time — regardless of their income level — as a result of “long-standing marginalization,” according to the NCA5’s Southern Great Plains chapter, which Bertrand co-authored.

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Getty Images

'Take the splinter out'

Elden Steele
Wisconsin

Elden Steele has watched winter get shorter. Lakes don’t freeze over like they used to and snow doesn’t accumulate as much.

Steele recalled first noticing these changes about a decade ago when he was duck hunting in late fall, when cold weather usually requires bundling up. Instead, he and his friend wore light clothing, and the temperature was still warm enough to make him sweat.

Steele said he’s frustrated by the lack of action on climate change by individuals and governments, plus the apathy that he’s noticed in some who say they feel there’s nothing they can do about it. He wonders what type of future we’re leaving behind for kids like his nieces and nephews.

“You’ve got a splinter in your finger, you take the splinter out. Your car needs repair, you repair your car — it’s not a big deal. Just do it, get it done,” Steele said. “Taking a few steps that can help mitigate the effects [of climate change] that are coming for us seems totally reasonable.”

It’s possible to winterize energy grids to withstand colder temperatures, she noted, and El Paso, Texas, is an example of how to pull that effort off. That city made widespread improvements to its power infrastructure following an extreme cold event in 2011. Those efforts later paid off when El Paso suffered fewer outages in 2021, according to the NCA5.

“I think that one’s a really good kind of success story of what you can do, and that it actually worked,” Bertrand said.

Still time to ‘tap the brakes’

Even as communities and ecosystems feel the disorienting results of a warming world, experts say there is still time to take action.

The mandate is in part a practical one. Failing to mitigate and adapt to climate change, Bertrand emphasized, comes with a “far greater” cost than the one associated with paying to prevent future expensive damages. She also noted that there are plenty of examples of communities taking the reins on those efforts.

READ MORE:How to slash emissions across the U.S. economy, according to experts

For Roop, encouraging more people to both recognize the threat of climate change and see themselves as part of the solution is top of mind. No single effort can solve these myriad challenges, but she believes this crisis presents an opportunity for thoughtful conversations about shared priorities and what we want our communities to look like moving forward.

That’s important, Roop said, because the choices we make today shape our future reality.

“I don’t want anyone to get [the] impression that it’s game over,” Burakowski said. “It’s definitely game on. It’s time to really get super serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to tap the brakes on this warming and bring this freight train to a halt.”