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Why Winter Matters: Warm Winters Aren't So Hot

Across the country, communities welcomed 2020 with unseasonably high temperatures. While some people may rejoice in a warm winter, these types of weather can have a serious impact on our environment. So, what happens when winter doesn’t show?

Published January 17, 2020

Climate change has brought unpredictable weather to places across the globe, including periods of both unseasonably warm and cold weather.

These weather changes have a direct impact on how habitats—and the plants and animals that rely on them for survival—can operate. It all works like a complex machine. If you remove or alter a piece, the machine can falter or break.


Locally, our “machine” is the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Snowfall is integral to the health of this estuary, creating a reservoir of water that slowly sinks through the soil, getting filtered along the way, to recharge ground water.

Snow melt flowing over the surface of the watershed’s forest floor provides a slow, even source of water to streams and wetlands. This water also fills seasonal bodies of water—called vernal pools—which become spawning sites for amphibians and critical habitats for numerous species.

Vernal pools, other wetlands, springs and streams represent critical components of a healthy watershed. When we experience a warm winter with no to little snow, some vernal pools might dry out between rain events or never form at all.


Warmer winter temperatures can also mean warmer average water temperatures for the Bay and its tributaries. Warmer water can drive fish populations further north in search of more oxygenated and colder waters, as well as impede the growth of sea grasses—a vital staple food for many native species.

Our watershed and surrounding areas have experienced warm winters in the past—but the increased frequency and duration expected due to climate change can have a lasting impact on these delicate habitat systems and their ability to bounce back.

Protecting these habitats and helping them adapt in the face of climate change is up to us. Your first steps can start at home, with the creation of a certified wildlife habitat and native garden. These special gardens not only feature native plants but also special forms of landscaping that encourage better water infiltration and fight erosion.

You can also get involved in the conservation of your local watershed via a variety of organizations—you can learn more about watersheds near you and the work being done to protect them. If you live close to the Aquarium, consider joining us for a conservation event!

Learn more about specific species that call the Chesapeake home during winter! Keep an eye out for the world’s largest jellyfish, a wintertime visitor that likes it especially cold.

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