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Exploring how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

North Carolina’s ‘snow drought’ continues during another warm winter

The Durham segment of the American Tobacco Trail in early March 2024.
Zachary Turner
/
WFAE
The American Tobacco Trail in Durham remained snow-free in February.

On the banks of Saxapahaw Island Park in Alamance County, Riverkeeper Emily Sutton, stood and pointed at nearly 20, large painted turtles sunbathing on the rocks in the Haw River. The turtles pushed their torsos up, peering suspiciously toward the bank.

“In March, we have a couple of these sunny days,” said Sutton. “But this isn’t something I would count on.”

Alamance County didn’t get any snowfall this year, and it isn’t alone: 2024 is the third consecutive February without snowfall for Charlotte. And as winter draws to a close, Raleigh is marking its first-ever without even a trace of snow recorded; for Charlotte, it’s the second in a row. This is consistent with the pattern of warming North Carolina has experienced due to global warming.

The average temperature in Charlotte was 49.9 degrees Fahrenheit in February, 4.1 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal.
Climate Central
The average temperature in Charlotte was 49.9 degrees Fahrenheit in February, 4.1 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal.

Charlotte will have experienced its longest “snow drought” after next week, according to Kathie Dello, North Carolina’s state climatologist. The city will eclipse its former 1993 record of 778 days without snow next Monday.

“We’ve always been on the edge of that 32 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Dello. “We know our winters aren’t that cold here. But it would always be cold enough to reliably have some snow.”

“Winter still will happen,” Dello said. “But we’re stacking the deck for more years with no snow.”

Jack Scheff, an assistant professor in the Geography and Earth Sciences Department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, described climate change as “adding dots to the dice.”

“Let’s say with the climate dice, originally you could roll a one through a six,” said Scheff. The one represents a colder season. A six means a warmer winter. “Maybe now, we’ve just painted another dot on each of the dice.”

This means one, the coldest roll, is no longer an option. The upper range of possible temperatures for a region also increases. Now, our imaginary climate die can roll two through seven, as the range of possible temperatures shifts higher.

Does this mean we’ll never see snow again? Not according to Scheff. North Carolina and the Piedmont can still experience colder weather, even snow days, but those days are becoming less likely and less abundant. And the precipitation that does fall is more likely to be liquid, even in winter.

“The extremes are getting more extreme,” said Dello. “We’re supercharging the atmosphere with more moisture, so when it does rain, it rains bigger. It rains harder.”

These heavy rains are often followed by drought conditions. This pendulum swing between dry and wet creates many issues. Farmers, for example, have difficulty planning for these extremes.

Back on the banks of the Haw River, the fair weather belied recent heavy, damaging rains, as Alamance County also experienced flooding events in February. Days with rain were fewer and farther between, but when it rained, it poured.

Turtles basking on the rocks of the Haw River.
Zachary Turner
/
WFAE
Painted turtles bask on the rocks of the Haw River in Alamance County.

“The past couple storm events, we’ve had more logjams,” Sutton said, referring to trees that fall into the river and become stuck on their way to Jordan Lake. “We’ve gotten almost hurricane-style rains with just the amount of volume and velocity of rainfall we’ve received.”

She says the precise cause of the logjams remains unknown, but one theory is drought conditions stress tree roots near the riverbanks, leaving trees vulnerable to floods. Urbanization and insufficient stormwater management increase the speed of floodwaters, contributing to the stress these trees endure.

Logjams can create habitat for wildlife, but also cause problems for bridges and paddle access points. The North Carolina Department of Transportation must then clear out the debris.

But Sutton wants people to make the most of North Carolina public lands and waters, and grab a little sun like the turtles. Call it a silver lining to a changing climate — and maybe a way to help people appreciate the state’s natural beauty.

“I was on a canoe yesterday in the river,” said Sutton. “Get out on your rivers and enjoy it.”

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Zachary Turner is a climate reporter and author of the WFAE Climate News newsletter. He freelanced for radio and digital print, reporting on environmental issues in North Carolina.