Tom Bonneau, of Paris, France, carries an umbrella while crossing Oak Street in Portland on Thursday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

WESTBROOK — On the last day of 2023, at Smiling Hill Farm’s cross-country ski center, skis, poles and boots were ready to be rented. But there was no snow and no skiing. The ski center and farm were surrounded by grass.

“We would be open for skiing if there was snow,” said Liz Parsons, who works at the farm. Visitors can get outside, grab a snack at the restaurant and visit cows, she said, but “we do miss not being able to open for skiing.”

Pretty much the only snowflakes seen in Portland last month were Christmas decorations, as the city experienced its second-least snowiest December on record, receiving less than an inch of snow to trail only December 1999, when a trace fell.

The average snowfall for December, as measured at the Portland International Jetport, is 14.6 inches, said Stephen Baron, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Gray. For all of 2023, Portland received 51.8 inches of snow compared to the historical average of 68.7 inches.

What little snow the state did receive early on was all washed away by the wind and rainstorm on Dec. 18, which put an exclamation point on a warmer and wetter year that scientists partly blame on climate change.

In December, with the mercury rising to 50-plus degrees on several days, the average temperature in Portland was 35.4 degrees, 5.1 degrees above normal. Precipitation in 2023 was measured at 56.7 inches in Portland, higher than the historical annual average of 48.12 inches, Baron said.


The unusual winter warmth in Maine is the result of two forces, El Nino and climate change, said Lauren Casey, a meteorologist at the Climate Central Organization, a nonprofit based in Princeton, New Jersey.

El Nino originates in the eastern Pacific with the atypical warming of sea surface temperatures, Casey said in an email on Sunday. “This affects large-scale weather patterns across the United States. In Maine, El Nino affects winter weather by shifting the location of the polar jet stream farther to the north,” which keeps cold air locked up over Canada, creating warmer than normal temperatures.

“When we add the impact of human-caused climate change, the winter warmth is amplified even more,” Casey said. Winters in the Northeast are warming faster than in any other region of the country. In Portland, the average winter temperature has increased 5.5 degrees over the last 50 years. The coldest days aren’t as cold. Cold snaps are shrinking, and nights below freezing have decreased.

The Atlantic Ocean has become warmer, and the waters off Maine have warmed greatly since the 1980s, and are now some of the fastest warming ocean waters in the world, she said. “All of this lack of cold air contributes to the lack of snowfall. The air is simply not cold enough to support snowfall,” which means it rains instead.

This hasn’t been good for winter traditions throughout the state.

Even in northern Maine, ice fishermen were pressed to find ice safe enough to fish.


The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife reported on Dec. 21 that ice conditions were “poor to nonexistent” throughout Maine, including the Moosehead Lake region. Early ice fishing was possible on a few ponds in early December, but heavy rain chased what ice was there. A cold snap is needed to ice fish, the department says.

While a cold snap would help ice fishing, it won’t do anything to help snowmobilers.

On Sunday, Bob O’Connell, of Milton, Massachusetts, stopped by at the Smiling Hill Farm store. His pickup was loaded with two snowmobiles. “We’re headed up to Rangeley,” he said. But the snowmobiling, even in Rangeley, wasn’t going well, he said: There had been snow in Rangeley, “but now there’s only a dusting.”


On Sunday, the Natural Resources Council of Maine held a polar dip at Willard Beach in South Portland. The event is to have fun, get together and raise money for the climate energy program, said Jack Shapiro, climate and clean energy program director.

Under a cloudy sky, with a mild breeze and a temperature of 32 degrees, more than 200 people were preparing to dip into the Atlantic, including Shapiro. Those ready to get wet are concerned with the changing weather.


“The impacts of climate change have arrived in Maine,” Shapiro said. In September, Maine schools closed because it was too hot. On Dec. 18, strong winds and heavy rains came with temperatures 25 degrees warmer than normal, he said. If the temperatures had been normal, the Dec. 18 the rainstorm would have been a snowstorm “and we could have had a white Christmas, a kickoff to a wonderful snowmobiling and ski season,” Shapiro said. “Instead we got flooding and half the state was without power.” More of that destruction will be felt “if we continue down the same path. We all have the ability to decide now what the future will look like.”

Mainers have taken good steps, he said. Residents have increased the number of homes and buildings with solar panels and heat pumps, and more motorists are driving electrical or hybrid electric-gas vehicles, which are more financially in reach than before, and those changes are saving money and reducing pollution, Shapiro said. Everyone can do something, he said.

Rob Boudewijn, of Portland, is a veteran dipper and supporter of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. He was there because he wants to bring attention to climate change, and reduce pollution by not buying things people can do without.

Water in plastic bottles is an example, Boudewijn said. “I don’t need to use these plastic bottles,” he said. And, he said too many food products are wrapped in a ridiculous amount of plastic.

“I’m going in,” he said as he shook with cold, standing on the sand in shorts.

Nearby, Kate Brown, 25, and her grandmother, Diane York, 76, both of Bryant Pond, also were getting ready to dip.


Both worry about climate change.

“I want kids, but do I want to bring them into a world like this?” Brown said, adding that she recently attended a conference in Freeport about climate change and contagious diseases. “We just need to start getting our act together.”

What’s needed is leadership that wants, and can lead to change, she said.

“We can do it. Maine is actually doing well” as far as state government. “There’s hope,” she said, but more sustained change is needed before more places where people live are no longer safe.

“These floods affected us,” Brown said, speaking of the Dec. 18 storm and the resulting floods and power outages. They have family members and friends who had to be rescued from their homes.

We “couldn’t get into Bethel to rescue them for about 24 hours,” York said.

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