In the New England I knew as a child, people commonly paraphrased Mark Twain’s famous line “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.” This was true year-round, but when it comes to rapidly changing temperatures, winter really had its moments. Most years, there seemed to be a day in the middle of January when the usual freezing days would give way to one that reached 50 or 60 degrees F. This prompted everyone to go outside in shorts before returning to the layers of winter for another three months. Why everyone had shorts at hand in the middle of January in New England is a regional mystery that remains unexplained.

When it comes to temperature, New England has always been a pretty variable place. When I moved back, I assumed it still would be. But after returning and living in the region for a year, that variability started to feel odd. For example, I became acutely aware of the surprising number of December days that reached the high 40s or low 50s, mostly because there is no indoor track in Worcester so I train outdoors all year (a note to the city of Worcester: Seriously? Nine colleges and lord-knows-how-many high schools, all looking for somewhere to train and race, and nobody thought to build an indoor track? 1). While the temperature is still marked by significant and relatively rapid changes, these temperature swings seem more drawn out than I remember. Where my understanding of variable temperatures was formed around a world marked by a day or two of outlying conditions followed by a return to expected temperatures, in 2017 October averaged 57 degrees Fahrenheit for the month, wildly out of line with even the 2010-present average of 52.

NOAA defines extreme temperatures as falling in the upper 10th percentile (for warm temps) or lowest 10th percentile (cold temps) across the time for which records were kept. In terms of heat, the figure below shows the percentage of days where the daytime high meets this definition of extreme. It is important to note that in the chart these extremes are relative to the month in question. In December, an extreme high is a temperature above 51.1 F, while in July it is above 87.1 F. Both are significant deviations from the norm, but the human experience of each is quite different.

In fact, the number of days marked by extreme/unusual high temperatures, just under 43 per year, has not changed since my childhood. However, as the chart shows, the distribution of these extremes throughout the year has changed. September has seen the greatest increase in these unusually hot days, which contributes to the sense of a longer summer season. On the other hand, the average number of days with extreme high temperatures in January and February has not changed much. We still have unusually warm periods in those months, but their frequency and duration is similar to that I knew as a child. March, June, and August are marked by fewer such days.

There has been a more dramatic change in the patterns related to extreme cold days – annually, there are now 26 fewer unusually cold days than seen in my childhood. This decline is visible in every month. August has more than three fewer unusually cold days, a change that means that today we see one such a day every five years. Along with overall increased average temperatures, and a longer duration and larger number of increased temperatures, this makes for a summer that feels more consistently summery.

There are four fewer extremely cold days in December, and these days now occur less than once a year. This is both a staggering change, but also a marker of a past that is now gone. Part of my identity is based on my ability to shrug off really cold temperatures, an ability borne of being sent outside to play regardless of the temperature throughout my childhood. Who from my generation did not make the mistake of coming inside, using the bathroom, and washing their hands under hot water too soon? If you have not done this, it really shocks the nerves and feels like someone is jamming dozens of needles into your hands. Generally, you make this mistake once. My kids are big Star Wars fans, but unless they concentrate on outdoor play during February, the warming temperatures mean they will probably not be reenacting versions of the Hoth scene from Empire Strikes Back as frequently as I did with my friends, and probably complain more when it is cold.

In my head, this image of my childhood home is still what winter should look like

The wild swings in temperature I recall from my childhood also appear to have become less frequent. There is a reason most New Englanders my age or older have an innate sense of layering in their wardrobes. That said, there’s also something very New Hampshire about a nostalgia for the days when you’d start sweating in your snowsuit because you needed it when you first went out, but it had since warmed up into the 50s while you were outside.

“Hey kid, if you’re big enough to sled, you’re big enough to help shovel the driveway!”

To better understand this change, I looked for days where the high temperature either increased or decreased by 20F or more from the day before. The charts below show what I found – overall, it appears that we see fewer of these swings now than in the past.

Where once there was an average of about 18 days per year where the temperature was 20 F warmer or cooler than the day before, today there are fewer than 13 days. As with most other temperature-related conditions, the deep winter period of January and February is much as it was in my childhood. Nearly every other part of the year has changed. For example, it appears the swings in temperature that I used to associate with March are being displaced into April and May. While July, August, and September rarely saw such swings in the past, they have now disappeared completely. Again, summer is becoming more consistently summery. Where November and December were once ground zero for this sort of day-to-day temperature change, today the temperature in these months has become more stable than in the period from January through April. Those warm days in December reflect high temperatures relative to my memory, but it doesn’t get as cold in December as it used to. Those temperatures feel unusually warm to me, but relative to current conditions they simply don’t qualify as extreme.

Once upon a time, you had to pack sweaters and jeans for a Salsbury beach vacation because even in early August you were going to get one of those days…

Even contemporary daily temperature changes are less pronounced than in my childhood. The chart below shows that the average day now operates in a somewhat smaller temperature window than in the past – across the year, the difference between the daily average high temperature and the average low temperature has shrunk by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since I was a child. This trend is true in every month, but very pronounced in October and December. Most of this change can be attributed to the fact that daily average low temperatures are rising faster than daily average high temperatures.

Taken together, this evidence suggests that, at least when it comes to temperature, the New England of “if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute” is going away. Since my childhood the weather has become a bit more predictable and a lot warmer. For a guy who prided himself on his resilience in the face of very cold and rapidly changing weather conditions, a resilience borne from a childhood outdoors in New England, this feels sad. It also challenges an identity I’ve carried throughout my adult life, which I lived almost entirely outside New England. I lived mostly in more temperate (if not tropical) climates. In those places I enjoyed being the New Englander, relatively unbothered by swings in temperature that made those around me complain. I took some pride in the ways in which my childhood had inured me to such discomforts. But now New England is warmer and, let’s be honest, just a little more boring when it comes to temperatures. My children are unlikely to develop quite the same sense of identity. Then again, this might be for the best. Compared to their father, they’ll be less insufferable when confronting cold or highly variable weather alongside those from warmer climates.

Notes:

  1. If you happen to have some capital laying around and are into track, I can help you spend it in Worcester – you are sure to make a mint, and I can stop freezing my ass off while trying to work out in January