By Michael McCarthy
As my wife Jo and I come up to our third winter in Dorset, I find myself harbouring a sentiment more suited to a child than an Old Geezer: you might call it snow-longing. As the air gets chillier I want to see flakes of the stuff fall from the sky and not melt when they hit the ground, I want to see a world of white, I want to hear the shouts of children sledging and building snowmen and throwing snowballs. I do. I find that I want that strongly.
I think the feeling has been brought on by coming to the countryside and witnessing the natural world more vividly in all its phases: the new life and colour of spring, the luxuriance of summer, and the ripeness and melancholy of autumn. So part of me feels, when it comes to winter, that I want the full deal there as well, the whole experience, and snow is part of that. I mean, it was so throughout my childhood, and much of my adult life. But now, of course, with the advent of climate change, it is vanishing. There is already a measured decrease in lying snow in Britain in recent years compared with the past; depending on how quickly the climate warms, it may vanish altogether. And I wonder, how much more of it will I see?
Yet I find it something of a moral conundrum, to care about the disappearance of snow in Dorset. For infinitely greater consequences will be visited by global warming upon millions of people, especially the poorest, if rising temperatures mean agriculture starts to fail across Africa and Asia, say, or if extreme weather events continue to increase in severity, or sea-level rise makes vast coastal regions uninhabitable. Part of me says, you should be shouting about that, not wittering on about some cosmetic aspect of winter. Well, I do care strongly about that; but I also feel, that the coming disappearance of snow from our lives, is not nothing.
For someone of my age, it is very much part of childhood: I remember the excited shout, looking out the window: It’s sticking! I am old enough to remember the great winter of 1963, when Britain was snowbound for two months (and recently I have been reading The Blizzard of ’78 by Mark Ching, a fascinating account of a mini-63 which fifteen years later, as the book’s subtitle proclaims, “buried Dorset” for five days.) And not just childhood; in adulthood I came to appreciate and love subtler aspects of snow—its transformation of the world, its softening of all edges, its muffling of all sounds, indeed its silence: it has seemed to me that the silence of snow falling is almost silent music. And of course, its physical beauty: last winter the one proper snowfall we had filled up the bluebell wood to west of the village, and its white purity in the dark wood was breathtaking.
These feelings have been part of what it is to be human, for countless generations; and my wife summed it up. “Snow is in our psyche,” she said. Indeed it is. But for future generations perhaps it won’t be. For 2023 was the hottest year in history, with temperature records broken all around the world, and because of an intermittent global weather pattern known as El Nino, the year 2024 is very likely to be even hotter. Climate change is properly upon us, and the failure of the UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai in December to do more than issue pieties about moving away from burning the fossil fuels causing it, shows how far away we are from slowing it down, never mind bringing it to a halt.
Making precise predictions about weather and climate is a mug’s game, not least because one of the principal characteristics of weather is its natural variability, and the advance of climate change is non-linear (it progresses in fits and starts rather than in a straight line.) It is perfectly possible that another vast snowstorm will cover Dorset this winter. But I don’t think it’s very likely. I think my longing will probably remain unsatisfied, and the months to come may be wet, but not snowy. And that loss, even if it is small compared to the other damage climate change may inflict upon the planet—that coming loss of snow and our feelings for it, is a real loss, a diminution of human experience which I find sad beyond measure.