“You can’t plow a puddle”: How warmer winters are changing snow removal

That winter, Harold Davis decided to break into the snow plow business on his own after working for other moving companies for about a decade. He bought a shiny canary-yellow snowplow a few months ago. It’s still pretty much pristine.

“It’s depressing. There should be snow banks this time of year,” he said, looking at bare driveways in early January. In Concord, where Davis lives, it was warm and rainy, with only a few days of snow.

As the climate changes, winter is the fastest warming season in much of the United States, and New England is a hotspot. This year is no exception. As things warm up, Davis says snow plow companies are feeling the effects.

During the summer, Davis and his team reseal driveways, fill cracks in the road and paint stripes in parking lots. In winter he relies on snow plowing to earn money. Earlier in the season, he rounded up clients and said he’d tend their driveways if it snowed more than three inches.

Then, in December, came the first storm.

“I was out there, every snowflake, with my tape measure in the snow, like, ‘Oh, we’re at an inch and a half. It’s almost time to go out!’” he said. “It just felt really good the first time I dropped the plow.”

The snowstorms since then have not been big enough for Davis to plow his entire route for his 20 clients. He’d like to pay someone to ride and shovel for him, but right now he can’t guarantee them a steady job.

“I’m still really scratching my head about what else I can do to obviously keep my employees busy and feed my family through the winter, rather than just trying to save money in the summer for the winter,” he says said.

Davis charges per visit. If it snows a foot, he can make a few thousand dollars. He says it will take about four snow storms to recoup his investment in the plow and another five storms for the truck. But most of the winter it rained instead of snowing.

“You can’t plow a puddle,” he said. “No one wants you to plow a puddle.”

As climate change warms winters, puddles are becoming more common. New Hampshire State climate researcher Mary Stampone says there are more and more days when it’s not cold enough to snow.

“With warmer temperatures comes a change in precipitation type, with more precipitation than rain falling during the winter season,” she said.

That doesn’t mean snow won’t fall. And when snowstorms come, they intensify, says Astrid Caldas, a climate scientist who focuses on community resilience at the Union of Concerned Scientists. This is because warm air can hold more moisture.

“A lot of people, when they have these huge snowstorms, say, ‘How can this be global warming?'” she said. “Well, that’s exactly what to expect under global warming, because there’s more water vapor in the air coming down than rain or snow.”

Even with severe storms and without consistently cold temperatures, the snow is likely to melt, Caldas said.

“It won’t contribute to snow cover, and many places depend on snow cover for a variety of water uses,” she said.

Concord, where Davis lives, has already lost about a week of snow cover in the last 50 years, according to the state’s latest climate assessment. By mid-century, the area could lose more than a month of snow cover if we continue to burn fossil fuels as usual. According to the report, reducing greenhouse gas emissions could reduce snow loss.

The New Hampshire Department of Transportation says it’s been a kind of relief to have less snow this season; They have many open positions and rely on volunteers from other parts of the agency to help plow state roads during a storm.

But as New Hampshire’s winters get warmer, Davis says smaller snowplow companies are struggling.

“I think it’s already clear to people that you can’t rely on snow removal the way you can’t,” he said. “It’s been clear for a couple of seasons now.”

Davis worries about climate change. He doesn’t want to see winter go away, not only because it’s affecting his business, but because he loves snowboarding. He wants to share this experience with future generations.

“Not only my son, but his kids should learn to snowboard and have fun in the winter and not be like, ‘Oh, well, when my grandfather was around, they actually rode that mountain,'” he said. “That’s a sad thought.”

Even though storms are less frequent, Davis says he will keep his gear. He wants to be able to help people who are snowed in, especially people who need to get out in an emergency or who can’t shovel themselves. Also, he says, a plow truck is a pretty nice place to be during a storm.

“The view you get when you’re out there before sunrise and you see the sun coming up over all the snow covered trees and the sun glistening off it,” he said, “it’s just beautiful.”

Right now, he says, he’s just praying for snow.

This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally released by New Hampshire Public Radio.