January 28, 2010 / 6:39 PM / 10 years ago

Extreme US winter signals climate change-report

* Unpredictable snow could hurt resorts, local economies

* Variable snow-and-melt cycle challenges road maintenance

By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Extreme winter weather in the northern United States shows that climate change can have severe effects, even when it doesn’t warm things up, the National Wildlife Federation reported on Thursday.

Climate change is expected to bring shorter, milder winters overall, but some U.S. areas will have more intense snows, with more disruption to such activities as skiing and ice fishing, which depend on predictable conditions, the report said.

“More oddball winter weather is terrible news for skiers,” the federation’s Chip Knight, a former U.S. Olympic slalom skier, told reporters.

Mountain snow sports that require reliable snow conditions provide about $66 billion to the U.S. economy; without them, local communities are vulnerable, Knight said.

He pointed to extreme efforts under way to get snow to sites at the Vancouver Winter Olympics as “a startling example of what’s at stake.”

In the northern United States, spring now arrives 10 to 14 days earlier than it did 20 years ago. However, some areas are expected to have more heavy snowfalls as winter storm tracks shift northward. For example, reduced ice cover on the Great Lakes is likely to result in more lake-effect snows.

Strange winter weather is likely to strain local budgets if overall milder winters are interrupted by heavy snowstorms that require snow removal and road maintenance, said Sheldon Drobot of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Extreme variability from one winter to the next makes planning for maintenance difficult, he said.

The current season has offered sudden temperature swings that, among other things, stranded a flock of brown pelicans that failed to migrate south during a mild period in late fall. They’re spending the winter indoors in Maryland after suffering frostbite, said the federation’s Amanda Staudt, a climate scientist.

Cutting the greenhouse gas emissions that spur climate change is “an essential first step,” Staudt said. However, she added that climate change is already occurring and must be dealt with.

“It’s clear that we’re already seeing some impacts and we need to start preparing for the new climate realities,” she said. “We can’t continue to plan based on what the historical trends have been.”

Curbing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions has been one of the Obama administration’s top priorities, and one carbon-cutting bill passed the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate. President Barack Obama called for climate change legislation in Wednesday’s State of the Union address, and a trio of senators are working on a compromise measure.

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