Dreaming of a White Christmas? Chances Are Slim This Year - And for Years to Come

Snow falling on Christmas day has become an increasingly rare sight for much of the country, a trend some meteorologists say could be attributable to climate change, while others are more hesitant to draw conclusions.

About 47 percent of the contiguous 48 states in the U.S. had snow on the ground on Dec. 25 from 1981 to 1990, with an average of 3.5 inches. From 2011 to 2020, that area was reduced to about 38 percent, with an average of 2.7 inches of snow on the ground, according to a review of 40 years of federal weather data from The Associated Press.

Several scientists told the AP the decline in the snow isn't significant enough to for definitive views yet, as several different factors like temperature and droughts all need to be considered when discussing snowfall.

The data showed the average temperature for December from 1981 to 1990 across the lower 48 states was just below the freezing point of water, 32 degrees Fahrenheit. From 2011 to 2020, the average December temperature had risen to about 35 degrees, enough above the freezing point to change snow to rain in many places.

The changes in snowfall and temperature are minor enough that University of Arizona atmospheric scientist Xubin Zeng, one of the experts who studied the data for the AP, said it is not enough yet to conclude whether the changes can be explained as normal variations in weather, or if climate change is causing the rising temperatures that are eliminating the snow.

Christmas, Snow, Weather Data, Climate Change
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree stands lit at Rockefeller Center during the 89th annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony, Dec. 1, 2021, in New York. An analysis of two different sets of 40 years of Dec. 25 snow measurements in the United States shows that less of the country now has snow on the ground on Christmas than in the 1980s. John Minchillo/Associated Press File

The shift is especially true in a belt across the nation's midsection — from Baltimore to Denver and a few hundred miles farther north. And snow that falls doesn't measure up to past depths.

Scientists say the decline in the number of white Christmases is relatively small and caution about drawing conclusions. But it's noticeable and matters mightily to some people like George Holland.

The retired Dubuque, Iowa, educator known for his front-yard nativity scenes said snow on Christmas is supposed to be part of the holiday: "The one that makes my heart warm is after going to midnight Mass and coming outside and it's snowing."

But the weather in Dubuque hasn't cooperated in recent years. "We don't have white Christmas,'' said boutique owner Bill Kaesbauer. "We haven't had any in years."

The last one was in 2017 in Dubuque, which weather records show used to have white Christmases nearly two out of three years.

But what did that warming trend, natural weather variability and a western mega-drought mean to white Christmases?

The change was particularly pronounced in a swath from about the Mason-Dixon line to just north of Detroit, Chicago, and Nebraska.

Still, Zeng, who has published studies on decreasing snowpack in the western U.S. being connected to climate change, said the downward slide of white Christmases is consistent with global warming.

In 20 to 30 years "with climate warming, the prospects of a white Christmas in many parts of the U.S.A. will be slim indeed," said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

A separate analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looks at "climate normals" — 30-year periods for about 5,000 weather stations across the lower 48 states. Comparing normals for 1981-2010 to normals for 1991-2020 shows more stations are seeing statistical odds for a white Christmas shrink, but the agency cautions against drawing a conclusion about any trend.

In much of Iowa and eastern Washington, the changes are bigger than elsewhere, according to NOAA. From 1981 to 2010, Dubuque's chance for a white Christmas was 63 percent but it's now down to 42 percent. Walla Walla, Washington's chance of getting a white Christmas dropped in half from 19 percent in 1981 to 2010 to 9.5 percent now.

Denver's airport station went from 40 percent chance of Christmas snow from 1981 to 2010 to 34 percent. Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, Fort Wayne, Topeka, Des Moines, Akron, Albany, Olympia, Rapid City, and Oklahoma City airports saw drops of three or four percentage points.

The line where there's at least a 10 percent chance for a white Christmas moved noticeably north with the new normals, said NOAA climate scientist Imke Durre. And the nation's capital went from 10 percent to 7 percent.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Christmas, Snow, Weather Data, Climate Change
A wintry mix of sleet and snow falls on the U.S. Capitol and its Christmas Tree on Dec. 16, 2019 in Washington, DC. A new Associated Press review of 40 years of weather data showed less snow on the ground in fewer areas of the country on Christmas day in 2020 than what was on the ground in 1981. Mark Wilson/Getty Images