I was cross-country skiing after last weekend’s blizzard when I saw a bewildered boy, no more than four or five years old, standing up to his knees in a snowdrift. He was trying to walk forward, but the drift was too thick. I stopped and pulled him free.

“Mister,” he asked me, “why is the grass white?”

“Son,” I said, “that’s not grass. That’s snow. Winter’s here. It’s only about two and a half months late.”

The boy was so young he remembered only the cool, drizzly winters of the 21st century. So I leaned on my poles and told him about hard midwestern winters–winters as snowy and cold as the one we had that weekend, but 30 times as long.

“They usually started at the beginning of December,” I said, “though I can remember some that got going as early as Thanksgiving. We knew winter was here when the ground was covered with this snow stuff you see. It’s like a frozen form of rain. When you had a real winter you never saw squirrels, because they were hibernating. That’s the long sleep that got them through the months when the nuts they like to eat were covered with the snow. All the birds skipped town too, except the pigeons and the crows.

“A lot of people didn’t like snow. It made the roads slippery, so it caused traffic accidents, and every year, old men pulled muscles or even died of heart attacks while they lifted it from their driveways with these broad, flat things called shovels. The city got it off the streets by melting it with salt or pushing it aside with plows–curved metal blades attached to the fronts of garbage trucks.

“A few people liked snow. Kids like you used to sculpt it into statues they called snowmen or packed it into snowballs and threw them at one another. They slid down hills on ‘sleds,’ boards built of wood or plastic.

“Now, most people didn’t like it when winter lasted three months. They thought it was just something they had to endure. Some people went to Florida, which has no winter, and then retired there. We called them snowbirds. I guess they figured an endless summer was their reward for a lifetime of shoveling–kind of a warm-up for heaven. But we need winter every year, just as we need sleep every day. The rest of the seasons are never going to be the same now that it’s disappearing.”

“What do you mean?” the lad asked.

“Well,” I said, “there’s a chance this summer will be hell on earth.”

Then I made tracks, hoping I hadn’t frightened him. But this was my first chance to ski all winter, and I wanted to get in as much as I could before the snow disappeared.

The fact is, all across the north, winter is melting away. By the time you read this, spring rains may well have turned our weekend blizzard into a few grimy piles in the shadows–dirty, tattered scraps of the white blanket that once covered the city all season long.

Our green January–a month when athletes jogged along the lakefront in shorts–was ten degrees warmer than usual. Our TV weatherpeople, who measure every climate against the standard of southern California, babbled about the “gorgeous” weather. Nobody had to shovel out a parking space, then defend it with kitchen chairs.

But Bob Richards, who runs the Northern Illinois Nordic cross-country ski race, was frustrated. His event, scheduled for January 12, was postponed three times, until early February. Two winters ago it was postponed twice. “Twenty years ago there were eight or nine cross-country ski races in Chicago,” he says. “A lot of the people who started skiing back then started because we had winters with consistent snow. The baby boomers latched on to the sport, but the younger generation–there’s no snow for them. It’s kind of dwindled down to one or two races.”

One baffled 48-year-old who spent his childhood on sleds and skis says, “I feel like I live in a different place than I grew up in.” The order of nature, says Ecclesiastes, is that generations come and go but the world is unchanging. Now the world and its seasons are changing in a single lifetime. In North America the gap between the first and last freeze is three weeks shorter than it was in 1970. In Britain, which is experiencing its earliest spring since it started keeping records in 1659, scientists are talking about the “winter squeeze”–spring and fall crowding winter out of the calendar.

Ice fisherman Chuck Thompson of Mount Prospect is a man who can’t wait for winter, but this year he’s had a hard time finding it. Normally he fishes in the Cook County forest preserves or the Chicago harbors, but there the ice is soft and thin, so he’s been driving 50 miles to the Chain o’ Lakes.

A disappearing winter will do more than spoil the fun of skiers and anglers. It will change animal behavior and agriculture, shrink our water supply, and make us more susceptible to insect-borne diseases, and it may even alter the character of our society. It’s already happening. According to the National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration, 2001 was the second warmest year on record. The five warmest have all occurred since 1990.

“We have had several mild winters, so there is a trend that has been pointed out by global-warming researchers, that some of the warmest winters have been in the last 10 or 15 years,” says Mohan Ramamurthy, an associate professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “In some places, such as northeast Wisconsin and Iowa, they had anomalies of more than 12 degrees in January. That is astonishing.”

The Pacific Ocean is the source of our warm winters. Temperatures there determine the path of the jet stream, which carries cold air down from Alaska and the Yukon. When the ocean is warm the jet stream is pushed farther north, into Canada. In the past scientists attributed the migrating jet stream to El Nino, but there’s no El Nino this year.

“I don’t believe this is just anecdotal,” says Ramamurthy. “We have to be aware of natural variability, where we can have such fluctuations. [But] the global-warming community says these fluctuations are due to a warmer planet.” If the people in that community are correct, and the buildup of greenhouse gases is warming the planet, “then clearly this will take a long time to reverse,” he says. The winters we knew a generation ago won’t return in our lifetime.

Chicago has always existed on a climactic border, at the bottom edge of the north country’s snowbelt. But as the climate changes, winter is receding toward the Arctic, and Chicago is inheriting the icy, sleety winters of central Illinois. “The ice storms will move north,” Ramamurthy predicts. “Typically, the ice storms occur in a narrow belt around zero degrees [Celsius]. If that zero-degree belt moves north, then that freezing rain moves north.” There were moments last weekend when the clouds were hemming and hawing between rain and snow.

Birds have already noticed the difference. Traditionally, interior Canada geese, a somewhat migratory subspecies, nest in Canada and winter in southern Illinois. Now they’re stopping in the snowless fields and golf courses of southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, says Roy Domazlicky, an urban-waterfowl-project manager with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Last fall duck hunters waited in blinds along the flyway as they do every year, but their quarry never appeared. Ducks didn’t need to fly south to find open water–the ponds in Wisconsin weren’t freezing. “It really messed up the duck hunting this year,” says Illinois state climatologist Jim Angel. “When you get a really mild winter the ducks are hanging out in Wisconsin and saying, ‘It’s not winter. I’m not migrating south.'”

Lake Michigan has at best a narrow margin of ice along the shoreline. Green Bay has only a quarter of its usual amount. By late February the lake used to be 40 to 45 percent frozen; this year it’s 10 percent. That’s bad, because ice helps prevent the lake from evaporating. And there’s little snowpack to soak into the soil, melt into streams, and replenish the lake. Lake Michigan–the source of our drinking water–is now only 175.61 meters above sea level, its lowest level since 1964. Ships can’t carry as much cargo in the shallower bays, which means higher prices for what they can carry and millions of dollars to dredge marinas and harbors. Some shoreline plants, such as the lakeshore rush, are reappearing along the widening beaches.

“The water levels are definitely related to temperature,” says Cynthia Sellinger, a hydrologist with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “The lakes were evaporating during the winter when they should not have been evaporating.”

In February a man who grew up in western New York told me, “I can do without snow.” He’s not the only one. The rats hate it too. A hard winter is great for controlling those pests. When the snow covers their beloved garbage piles they cannibalize one another. In a mild winter there’s lots of food, and then, says Terry Howard, who ran Chicago’s antirat operations for many years, “They’ll have major litters. If the weather’s really bad, it cuts down on their food supply.”

Snow is more than a skier’s delight, a motorist’s irritant, a rodenticide. The white shroud winter draws across the earth works like a Berber’s robes: it reflects the sun’s rays. Snow reflects between 80 and 90 percent of solar radiation. That helps keep us cool in the summer. We get the most sunlight in June, but the ground is still relatively cool; the summer heat doesn’t build to its maximum until August. After a snowy winter it takes the ground months to store enough heat for the dog days. We may have a long, hot summer this year, because naked ground throws back only 10 to 20 percent of the sun’s radiation.

Snow is also an insulating blanket, preventing the soil from freezing like tundra. In the spring this blanket handily melts and percolates down through the dirt, just in time for planting season. It soaks through more easily if the ground isn’t still frozen. Around the world, one-third of the water used for irrigation comes from snow. In western states the farmers are even more dependent on winter: they get three-quarters of their water from mountain snowmelt. We in the midwest seem to be faced with a vicious cycle: if there’s no snow, we have to irrigate our fields with water from our reservoirs, lakes. And lakes are already shrinking because there’s so little ice. The last time we had a string of winters this warm was 1931 to ’33. The dust bowl followed. Climatologists are already predicting the worst summer droughts in the east since the 1960s.

Of the four seasons, winter is the most altered by global warming, so we can think of this year’s as a warning. If the world does heat up, we’re all going to feel it year-round. Those cool July nights we used to enjoy? Forget it. No longer will they be able to say in Maine, “If you can’t stand the winters, you don’t deserve the summers.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has projected the effect of global warming on Illinois. By 2100 temperatures will increase two degrees in the summer, three degrees in winter and spring, and four degrees in the fall. That could mean an 85 percent increase in summer-related heat deaths, more asthma-causing smog, and a welcoming climate for mosquitoes carrying dengue fever, eastern equine encephalitis, and La Crosse encephalitis. Illinois is now the buckle of the corn belt, but harsh summers could cut corn production by a third. “Warmer climates and less soil moisture due to evaporation may increase the need for irrigation,” the EPA says. “However, these same conditions could decrease water supplies.”

It’s not clear whether the summers will be wetter or drier, but the EPA says that in either case our forests would change. In a drier climate the prairie would expand, while southern pines would replace deciduous trees in Little Egypt. In a wetter climate “trees that are better adapted to warmer conditions, such as oaks and southern pines, would prevail.”

Losing winter might also change the character of northerners in subtle ways. A dose of cold weather every year tempers people, focuses their ambition. In a harsh climate you have to get the hay in the barn before the snow flies. In his 1915 book Civilization and Climate, Yale University geographer Ellsworth Huntington wrote that the southern Great Lakes and the mid-Atlantic were the regions of America where the climate was most conducive to hard work and good health. They were also, for that reason, the wealthiest and most industrialized. Of course this part of the country, which has been called the foundry, built a lot of the cars and factories that caused global warming; if the heat eventually wears away our edge we’ll have our own industriousness to blame.

“We are frequently told that the Riviera or southern California has an ideal climate,” Huntington wrote. But then he noted, “For most people the really essential thing in life is the ordinary work of every day. Hence, the climate which is best for work may in the long run be the most nearly ideal. But such climates are also the ones that are best for health. Hence they are the ones which people will eventually choose in the largest numbers.”

We may curse the cold, but Chicago still has twice as many people as Phoenix, and New York twice as many as Los Angeles. Because Huntington published his book in 1915, he drew many of his conclusions from the south’s low productivity and lack of education. That was before air-conditioning–winter in a box–revived the Confederacy from its post-Civil War doldrums. Yet even today the states with the lowest high school graduation rates are hot and humid South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, and Florida, while the states with the lowest per capita incomes are Mississippi, West Virginia, New Mexico, and Arkansas. In that heat, who has the energy to work and study? If we inherit their climate we may inherit their sloth too. The City That Works–the city that built the world’s tallest building and the world’s busiest airport–may become the City That Cringes in the Shade. The elite will flee to their summer cottages on Hudson Bay, while the rest of us wilt in the heat.

If the upper midwest’s culture was formed by winter, so, in many places, was the economy. Northern Wisconsin is suffering through a dreadful tourist season. There’s just nothing to do outdoors–it’s not warm enough for boating and swimming, but it’s not cold enough for snowmobiling and skiing. “We only have two or three inches of snow left, maybe four or five in the deep woods,” said Robert Olson, who runs the Listening Point Foundation, a wilderness-education society in Hayward, in February. “It’s very bad. People are falling through the snow with their snowmobiles. It’s a tourism disaster. Every year we have the Birkebeiner [cross-country ski race]. Two years ago it was rained out.” Olson used to have to stop working in his woodlot by November, but in recent winters he’s been out there all season long.

Wisconsinites have the feeling that nature’s out of balance. “We’re schizophrenic about it,” says Olson. “We like it that there’s no two- or three-foot dumps to plow out. You don’t have to dress so much. Pipes don’t freeze. At the same time we feel it’s not right. The bears had a hard time hibernating. The deer are more vulnerable to a wolf pack–they can’t hide in the swamps. I like the winter. I like it because it’s quieter than the summer. The feeling of sequestration and isolation in winter and the pristine beauty of these icy cold days, sparkling snow–it’s sort of a different world.”

Olson’s evocation of winter is almost as eloquent as his father’s. Sigurd F. Olson was a Chicago native who moved to the north country as a boy and became a teacher, wilderness guide, and revered nature writer. His most famous book, The Singing Wilderness, is a roundelay of seasons in the north. It ends of course with winter, a season he loved just as much as spring, summer, or fall. In his essay “Coming of the Snow” he describes a scene that may someday seem as remote as a Currier & Ives print of a horse and sleigh flying down a snow-covered road. Snowshoeing through the woods in early winter, he meets a bluejay that turns out to be a kindred winter lover: “He perched in an aspen near by where I could admire his black highwayman’s mask, his black and white wing bars, his vivid, icy blue. He gave his hard, brazen call, more of a challenge than a song, a challenge to the storm and cold. There was jauntiness and fortitude, announcing to me and to the whole frozen world that where there is wine and sparkle in the air, it is a joy to be alive. I liked that jay and what he stood for; no softness there, pure hardiness and disregard of the elements.” His book is a good read on a winter day when you can feel the sun on your face, when your skis are locked in the basement, when you miss stalactite icicles and snowdrifts the size of sand dunes.

Winter isn’t going to disappear completely. But blizzards may become exotic events, as they are in the south. Some climate-change models predict that by the turn of the century Detroit will have the same climate Saint Louis does today and parts of Illinois will resemble the Texas panhandle. Winter will then be a natural nuisance we’ve driven to the margins of the world. We’ll have to go up to Canada to see it, as we now go to Yellowstone to see wolves and grizzlies. It may stop by for the odd weekend, but it won’t be paying us long visits anymore.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.