New York City Had One of Its Least Snowy Winters on Record

On Feb. 1 in Central Park, children threw snowballs and slid down a mound of snow. But the snow was machine-made for a winter festival, and for New York City, it was virtually the only snow of the month.

As of Friday, there had not been even a trace of snow at the city’s airports in February, according to the National Weather Service, for the first time on record. But a few flakes fell on Saturday, the extra day of a leap year.

And this winter, the city tied its second-smallest snow total on record. There was only a trace of snow in Central Park last month, only the sixth time the park had no measurable snow in February since records began in 1868.

The paltry snowfall has left children crestfallen, teenagers pining for snow days and commuters relieved. Coming on the heels of the world’s hottest year on record, the snow deficit was also a sign of climate change — though not in the way people might assume.

Climate change, said Mark Wysocki, the New York State climatologist, leads to volatile weather patterns. In Central Park, for instance, the past decade saw both the second-snowiest winter — 61.9 inches from December 2010 to February 2011 — and the second-least snowy, this season’s 4.8 inches.

For record keeping, climatologists define winter as December, January and February.

“In the 2000s, we’re seeing these extremes, between the driest and the wettest,” he said. “Because of the climate changing, this is what we would expect, this volatility.”

Such variations can be a headache for officials, he said, especially in New York City, where each inch of snow costs about $1.5 million for plowing, salt and other responses.

“When you can have no snow within a five-year period or you could have record-setting snow, how do I plan a budget for a city like that with this kind of volatility?” Mr. Wysocki said. “Some years you save. Some years you go overboard.”

New York City’s love-hate relationship with snow is, if you will, deep, and it was on display on Saturday in Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

Keith Fraase, 35, who was playing with his 4-year-old daughter in the dry grass, said she had received her first sled last year and was still holding out hope for snow.

“She was sitting in the paved area behind our apartment practicing sledding, waiting,” Mr. Fraase said. “We were saying, ‘It is going to happen. It is going to happen.’ It never happened.”

The lack of snow was on Ella Smith’s mind as she walked with her parents, who reminisced about putting on snowshoes and headlamps to explore the woods of Prospect Park at night after a snowstorm.

“I miss it,” said Ella, 13, who studies climate change in school and recently did a project on the forest fires in Australia. “It is kind of sad.”

Walking nearby with a friend, Elijah Muhammad, 19, said he missed the sense of community that comes when snow piles up outside the six-building complex where he lives in Harlem.

“Everybody would be there playing in the snow, playing with each other,” he said. “It was connecting people.”

Then again, some New Yorkers are happy to do without the slippery streets and transit delays.

Walking his dog in Central Park on Saturday, Dr. Warren Fink, 63, said that snow leaves his mother, who is in her 80s, housebound.

“If she falls, it could be the beginning of the end of her life,” he said. “She doesn’t dare go out when it’s icy or there’s snow on the ground.”

Rainfall has been about average this winter. That means the state does not have to worry about low levels in reservoirs for drinking water, Mr. Wysocki said.

But winter rain can be dangerous, he said, because it leads to icy roads and sidewalks. A recent study showed that Tompkins County, where he works at Cornell University in Ithaca, spends twice as much on salt to de-ice roads during winter rains as opposed to snows.

The lack of snow has drawn extra attention this year because of a steep increase in public awareness about climate change, identified for the first time as a top concern for most Americans in a long-running Pew Research Center survey.

This winter was one of the top 10 warmest for many places across the country, including New York.

New York did not have its hottest year ever in 2019, even though the globe did.

Chike Eleazu, jogging in Central Park, said he grew up with tropical weather and associates New York snow with “a lot of unpleasantness,” but worries about global warming when it does not come.

“Obviously, something is not right,” he said.

But for people who grew up in New York sledding in parks and building snow forts in the piles left by plows — not just in, say, the notorious winter of 1978, but in most winters — the climate worries come with a dose of nostalgia.

Most of all, Eileen King, 73, of the Inwood section of Manhattan, missed the feeling of a winter season this year.

“When it snows, New York has to slow down,” she said. “It’s an unusual dimension of New York that is quiet under this nice white blanket.”

Katie Van Syckle contributed reporting.