Mara Hoplamazian/New Hampshire Public Radio
This winter, Harold Davis, 29, decided to get into the snowplow business for himself, after about a decade of working for other removal companies. He bought a canary yellow snowplow in the fall. It’s still pretty spotless.
“It’s depressing. This time of the season, there should be snow banks,” he says, looking out at bare driveways in early January. In New Hampshire’s capital city of Concord, where Davis lives, it’s been warm and rainy – though he got his wish Friday for a good dumping of snow.
As the climate changes, winter is the fastest-warming season for much of the U.S., and New England is a hot spot. This year is no exception, and Davis says snowplow businesses are feeling the impacts.
Most of the year, Davis and his small team reseal driveways, fill cracks in the road, and paint stripes onto parking lots. But in the winter, he relies on plowing snow to make money. At the start of the season, he gathered up customers, and said he’d take care of their driveways when it snows more than three inches.
In December, the first storm came.
“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 recalls. “It just felt really good when I dropped the plow for the first time.”
Opportunities to plow have been few and far between, since that first storm. Friday’s snow was the second time this winter Davis has plowed his entire 20-stop route.
“It’s nice that we got it (snow), but I am a bit disappointed that we haven’t had too much more. So hopefully things will start looking up,” he says, driving home from his 6-hour shift Friday morning.
For the first time, Davis paid one of his clients to ride along and help shovel during Friday’s storm. He plans to keep doing this for big storms – but when it only snows a little, Davis says he’ll do the work himself.
Right now, his summer employees find other winter work. He’d like to offer them year-round jobs, but at the moment he can’t guarantee them a steady winter income.
“I’m really still wracking my mind about what else can I do to obviously keep my employees employed and to keep my family supported throughout the wintertime, instead of just trying to save money in the summertime,” he says.
Davis charges per visit. If it snows a foot, he can make a few thousand dollars. He says it’ll take about four snowstorms to see a return on his investment in the plow. and another five storms for the truck. But for much of the winter, it’s been raining instead of snowing. “You can’t plow a puddle,” he says. “No one wants you to go plow a puddle.”
Puddles are increasingly common. Mary Stampone, New Hampshire’s state climatologist, says there are more and more days when it’s not cold enough to snow.
“With the warmer temperatures comes a change in the type of precipitation, where we have more precipitation falling as rain during the winter season,” she says.
Snowstorms, when they happen, are getting more intense, says Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist focused on community resilience at the Union of Concerned Scientists. That’s because warm air can hold more moisture.
“A lot of people, when they have these huge snowstorms, they say, how can it be global warming?” she says. “That’s exactly what’s expected under global warming, because there is more water vapor in the air to come down as rain or snow.”
Winter warming also contributes to the kind of “lake effect” snow Buffalo, NY saw earlier this winter. With lakes freezing over later, warm lake water can combine with cold air to create heavy snow.
Even with major snowstorms, without consistently cold temperatures the snow is likely to melt, Caldas says.
“It’s not going to contribute to the snowpack, and many places depend on snowpack for a variety of water uses,” she explains.
Concord 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. A reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could lessen snow loss, according to the report.
The New Hampshire Department of Transportation says it’s been kind of a relief to have less snow this season. It has a lot of open positions, and volunteers from other parts of the agency are relied on to help plow state roads when there’s a storm.
They’re not alone. States across the country have struggled with a lack of snowplow drivers.
But as New Hampshire’s winters get warmer, Davis says smaller snowplow businesses are feeling the pinch.
“I think it’s already clear to people that you can’t count on snow plowing,” he says. “It’s been clear for a few seasons now.”
Davis worries about climate change. He doesn’t want to see winter disappear, not only because it affects his business, but also because he loves snowboarding. He wants to share that experience with future generations.
“Not just my son, but his kids should be learning how to snowboard and have fun in the winters and not be like, ‘Oh, well, when my grandfather was around they actually snowboarded that mountain,'” he says. “That’s a sad thought to think about.”
Even if storms are less frequent, Davis says he’ll keep his equipment. He wants to help people make sure they can get out of their driveways if they get snowed in. Plus, he says, a plow truck is a nice place to be, during a storm.
“Watching the sun rise over all the trees covered in snow, and the way that the sun glistens off of it,” Davis says. “It’s just beautiful.”