The rate at which snow has fallen in the United States has changed significantly over the last 50 years, according to a new report. Those changes have forced Hoosiers to adapt to a changing climate over decades.
The Climate Central report collected 50 years of snowfall data from 145 locations across the U.S. and found that the snowfall rates have changed in all monitored areas, especially in the fall and spring.
“What this does is tell us is that climate change is a thing, and it’s already happening. This isn’t something that’s going to be coming down the road, this isn’t something that’s 10 or 20 years down the road. It is here,” said Sean Sublette, meteorologist at Climate Central.
The report points to an overall decrease in snowfall across the state over the last 50 years, with the most extreme changes coming in the northern and southern parts of the state.
Snowfall in Evansville has decreased by about 42%, while South Bend has experienced a 21% decrease.
In central Indiana, the change has not been quite as severe. According to the report, Indianapolis has experienced an overall snowfall decrease of nearly 8.5%.
The decrease in snowfall has occurred in specific parts of the year.
“In general, we’re seeing less snow coming down in what’s nicknamed the ‘shoulder seasons,’ fall and spring. There’s always going to be some snow in the fall and some snow in spring, but we’re tending to see a little bit less of that over the last 50 years,” said Sublette.
The central region of the U.S., which includes Indiana, saw snowfall decrease by 74% in fall and 77% in spring.
The six Indiana cities included in the report averaged a decrease of 1.85 inches of snowfall in the fall months compared to 50 years ago.
Data points to a decrease of 4.5 inches of fall snow in South Bend, a 2.3-inch fall decrease in Fort Wayne and 1.5-inch fall decrease in Indianapolis. Evansville, Lafayette and Terre Haute averaged around one inch less snowfall during the fall months.
Data collected from Hoosier cities points to an even larger snowfall decrease in the spring. The six cities averaged about 3.3 inches less snow during the spring.
South Bend had about 8.8 fewer inches of snowfall during the spring than it did 50 years ago, Evansville 4.2 inches, Terre Haute 3.5 inches, Fort Wayne 1.8 inches and Lafayette 0.9 inches.
Indianapolis bucked the trend with an overall increase of .7 inches of spring snow over the last 50 years.
“During the core of winter, it’s a much more mixed signal across the country,” Sublette said. “If we think specifically to central Indiana, the signal is not nearly as strong one way or the other. There are some places where you do see a little more signal in the dead of winter a little bit north and west of the Hoosier state.”
According to the report, five out of six Indiana cities saw a decrease in winter snowfall.
Terre Haute had the largest decrease with 10.8 fewer inches of snow during winter over 50 years, followed by South Bend with 7.2 fewer inches, and Evansville with 4.2 fewer inches. Lafayette and Indianapolis both had 2 fewer inches of snow in the last 50 years.
Fort Wayne is experiencing 2.3 more inches of snow during winter than it did 50 years ago.
The change in snowfall rates affects the lives and livelihood of Hoosiers across the state.
“You gotta think about the people who are farmers. How are they going to plan in terms of their crops if they have less snow on the ground,” Sublette asked. Snow is actually a good insulator for soil. During the dead of winter, if you have more snow on the ground, that kind of keeps your ground from drying out as much, and then, if you have a nice gentle snow melt going into spring, that’s really beneficial to your soil. It makes for a better environment for your crops.”
Indiana weather has greatly affected the agricultural output of its top crops.
In 2019, heavy spring rain limited the state’s harvested corn acreage to the lowest level in nearly 40 years and reduce soybean production by 20%.
Climate change is causing the way precipitation is distributed in Indiana to change.
Researchers from the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment found that precipitation levels in Indiana will rise as the climate gets hotter. Climate change is increasing the state’s average annual temperature, which is reducing the chance of extreme cold. Climate change is also increasing rainfall during winter and spring, while reducing rainfall. Instead of being spread out throughout the year, the rain will fall in heavy periods, causing heavy flooding.
“Serious flooding is going to become more of a risk,” said Sublette. “It’s not going to be an everyday thing, but because you have a warming climate, it raises the likelihood of these extreme events that really affect the livelihoods of people.”
Officials from around the state have begun preparing their cities for the effects of climate change.
In the northern part of the state, communities have adopted some preventative measures to help mitigate the effects of increased flooding.
South Bend installed backwater gates to prevent water from the St. Joseph River from backing up into storm sewer pipes, installed real-time river gauges, planned for enhanced communication with residents during flood events and are studying a redirection of storm water pipes to other parts of the sewer system during heavy rains.
In central Indiana, Indianapolis city officials have incorporated the likelihood of future flooding events into the city’s master plan. The Thrive Indianapolis plan will plan for an average of 6.6 days of heavy precipitation, meaning days with more than 1.25 inches of rain, and an annual increase of 7 inches of precipitation.
And in the southern part of the state, Evansville recently was approved for more than $182 million in funding from the state of Indiana for its Long Term Control Plan to deal with stormwater overflows during increasing periods of heavy rainfall.
Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute has also created an online tool, the Hoosier Resilience Index, for communities to gauge what climate change challenges they can expect to face in the future.
Another ERI tool, the Environmental Resilience Institute Toolkit, helps community leaders share information about how they have taken on issues related to climate change.
“It may not be obvious every single solitary day, but climate change is here and we’re going to continue to see the impacts more and more in the coming decades,” said Sublette.