Mild Winter Contrasts with Historical Records

 

Photo: It was not uncommon in past decades for the St. Croix River to freeze along its various branches. In Calais, townsfolk would regularly ride their horse-drawn sleighs up and down its length. 

By Lura Jackson

Februaries in Maine aren’t typically known for their abundant sunshine, rain showers, and the return of spring birds, but that’s what we’ve been seeing over the past few weeks. The unexpected warmth and relatively mild conditions have contributed to what many are calling the shortest winter in their memory—though, of course, the cold hand of winter hasn’t departed entirely. Looking back in our memories and our historical records, we can draw illuminating contrasts between past and present.

“Winters used to be a lot colder and a lot longer,” Gayle Moholland recalls. Moholland grew up in Calais in the 1950s and 60s, and her memories of winter are markedly different than what we’ve experienced this year. As a young girl, Moholland lived on Lincoln Street and walked to the elementary school on Academy Street located where the High Point Apartments are now. School attire regulations required that she wear a skirt year round, but when the cold weather started the girls were able to wear “snow pants” underneath them. “We had our snow pants on from October to April, without fail,” Moholland said. 

Moholland remembers the river freezing with thin layers of ice, though it wasn’t safe enough to walk on. Later, in the 1980s, icebergs were a common sight. On one occasion she recalls the dog of a friend that lived by the river floating away on one such suddenly dislodged iceberg—though he soon came to his senses and jumped in to make it back to shore. “He wasn’t a bright dog, but he was cute,” she remembers.

Long before Moholland was navigating the snowy streets and observing wayfaring dogs, young Nellie Holmes was no doubt engaged in similar activities as she made her way from her home on Main Street to the original grammar school located on Academy Street. Holmes grew up in the 1850s, and she kept a diary for at least a few years—a diary we are fortunate to still have at the St. Croix Historical Society. In the diary, she describes frequently going out onto the well-frozen river to participate in horse-drawn sleigh rides. It was common on those days for members of the community to race their sleighs along the frozen ice for merriment, though we have a few records of accidents related to collisions between horses and other unfortunate incidents.   

Moving backwards in time further still, the first written records that we have of the river and the winter are from the ill-fated French expedition in 1604. Having arrived in glorious early summer, the Frenchmen and their companions were delighted with their new settlement on St. Croix Island—right up until the snows started in October. The river soon began to freeze and layer upon layer of ice accumulated on the shores of the island, preventing the men from making it to the shore. Dozens would perish before brave Passamaquoddies traversed the dangerous crossing in March, bringing with them fresh game that brought twenty-two of the men back from the brink of death. 

It is important to note that the Frenchmen had the misfortune of timing the establishment of their settlement during the “Little Ice Age”, a period of a few hundred years that was marked by cooler temperatures in the Northern hemisphere. Causes for this cooling have been suggested to be increased volcanic activity, cyclical lows in solar radiation, and changes in ocean circulation, all of which contributed to lower than average temperatures until about 1850. 

Since that point, temperatures have been headed well in the other direction. Abe Miller-Rushing, Science Coordinator for Acadia National Park, said that data indicates that over the past 100 years the growing season in Maine has been extended by two full months. The temperature has increased by about two degrees. While this has certainly been a welcome change for farmers, the rapid shifting between freezing and above-freezing temperatures in the winter has caused increased wear to roads and other surfaces. 

What will the future bring? Beyond the regular cyclical fluctuations of climate, scientists widely believe that the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere will have an influence on temperatures for thousands of years to come. Projections from the National Climate Assessment for Maine indicate that in the next hundred years, temperatures could increase by 10 degrees and waters could rise by four feet. 

 

Whatever may come, it does seem that the winter we’ve been experiencing this past year is more likely to be indicative of future years.