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Wisconsin's winters are getting warmer, and it's altering our agriculture, economy, health, and way of life. On the heels of Wisconsin's warmest winter ever, Thin Ice explores the impacts.

As Wisconsin winters warm, a way of life is melting away

a silhouette of a young woman in a hat looks out on a frozen lake on a sunny winter day
Lina Tran
A park visitor enjoys the icy bay at Peninsula State Park.

On the first day of March in Havenwoods State Forest, the ground was bare, and the snow from a recent fall had melted. Mia Noel, a natural resources educator at the park, hunted for animal tracks in the mud.

a portrait of a light-skinned black woman in a knit headband outside on a winter day
Courtesy of Mia Noel
Mia Noel at the Apostle Islands ice caves in 2015, having a BWE or "best winter ever."

Noel is a winter evangelist. She sleds on weekdays after work and hosts outdoor winter games for friends (they compete for hot drinks). Her seasonal catchphrase is “BWE” — Best Winter Ever, that is, owing to her belief that each winter can be the best yet, with the right attitude.

Noel leads snowy walks at Havenwoods, drawing participants’ attention to winter's ability to reveal things you can't see during other parts of the year.

“You can see birds’ nests in a different way, you can see animal tracks in the mud or the snow,” Noel said. “Sometimes you can see an animal chasing another animal through the tracks, which is so fun. And because there’s less leaves and foliage, you can see animals farther away than you’d normally be able to.”

Just the other day, she saw a pack of six deer in the distance.

For Noel, who grew up in Milwaukee, loving winter comes with the territory: This is home and to love winter is to love home in all its seasons.

But this year was weirdly warm — it was Wisconsin’s warmest winter on record — and the snowfall wasn’t satisfying. According to the Midwest Regional Climate Center, most of southeastern Wisconsin saw anywhere from half to 75% of its usual snowfall. Northwestern Wisconsin got less than half its normal amount. The so-called "lost winter" is the latest in a long-term trend driven by climate change, and amped up by the natural climate pattern El Niño.

It's not just Wisconsin. This past winter was the warmest on record for the contiguous U.S., and seven other states, mostly across the Upper Midwest, also logged their warmest winters. Globally, the month of February was the warmest yet, the ninth month in a row to set new record highs.

a map of the continental US shows mean temperature departures from average for Dec. 2023-Feb.2024, with warmest in dark red.
Showing how average winter temperatures (Dec-Feb) compared to normal temperatures, this map indicates the Upper Midwest saw the greatest winter warming this year.

“It is a little bit sad because snow, for me, is what makes the winter so fun,” said Noel, who also enjoys snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

Wisconsin winters are expected to keep warming 5 to 11 degrees in the next 25 years. By midcentury, projections indicate they will be milder, less snowy and about a month shorter than they are now.

A decade of disappointment

ice hangs in sheets on sandstone cliffs along a deep blue lake in wintertime
Courtesy of Ar Schneller
Even when you can't walk up to the ice caves from the lake below, they are visible from above on the Meyers Beach hike on the Apostle Islands lakeshore, a hike ice cave enthusiast Ar Schneller makes often.

On the south shore of Lake Superior, without bitter cold, it’s hard to get the thick ice that lets visitors see the Apostle Islands elusive ice caves on foot. They emerge from the freezing spray of Lake Superior, one of the fastest-warming lakes in the world, and moisture that seeps through the sandstone cliffs. Even when it’s cold enough for a sheet of ice to blanket the lake, harsh winds can break it up. The ice caves haven’t been safe to access in nine years.

All winter, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore’s ice cave hotline — dubbed the “Ice Line” — has informed callers that lake ice conditions do not allow access to the sea caves. According to the Ice Line, park rangers routinely check the ice, updating the recorded message as conditions change. In mid-March, its message had not been updated since January 19.

Ar Schneller, a self-proclaimed “unofficial Apostle Islands Ice Caves enthusiast,” lives near the Upper Peninsula’s Little Girls Point and runs a popular Facebook page for all things ice caves. After noticing that people seemed to have many questions about visiting the caves, she began the page in 2014, a season that brought 138,000 visitors to the icebound lakeshore. Today, she boasts 6,400 followers.

Schneller first saw the caves more than two decades ago and she was hooked. She took her son, a middle schooler at the time, and his friends.

“They were just shrieking about everything,” she recalled. “But the coolest thing they saw that day was a frozen mouse about three inches deep into the ice. They’re like, ‘Mom, Mom, come here, you have to see this frozen mouse!’”

the sun shines behind a cliff covered in frozen ice. figures stand below and look up in wonder
Courtesy of Ar Schneller
The Apostle Island ice caves, pictured in 2014, a season that brought 138,000 to the lakeshore.

Now, after nearly a decade of disappointing winters, Schneller misses the frozen spectacle of the caves and wonders if she’ll be able to take her three grandchildren to experience the magic.

“I always know how long it’s been that I haven’t seen the ice caves because my grandson is nine,” she said. “He was born the last year that I was able to see the ice caves. I want them to see it so badly.”

Listen to the conversation with Ar Schneller.

A sense of harm

As the rhythms and wonders of winter life melt away, many people feel overwhelming loss or anxiety, known in this new era as climate grief or eco-anxiety. Their loss is not only for precious experiences that the next generation might miss out on, but also for the sense of security that a stable climate fosters.

These feelings are especially prevalent among young people, and they are expected to grow as we continue to experience the effects of climate change. Dekila Chungyalpa, founder and director of the faith and ecology-focused Loka Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, noted that people belonging to marginalized communities are likely to experience more intense ecological emotions, often because they know they are already more vulnerable to the hazards of climate change.

Chungyalpa said grief comes from the fact that our identities are often intertwined with climate.

“Especially if you’re Indigenous, or you have grown up here, or [your family] has been here for many generations, there is this tendency to take strength from that history,” she said. “This land has meaning for us. When the land is transformed, and the climate is transformed, we feel a sense of harm being done to our sense of self.”

In Wisconsin, the timing of Ojibwe traditions like ice-fishing or maple sugaring are closely tied to weather. Warming winters threaten to erode these foodways and forms of connection.

Chungyalpa designed a course on managing these feelings, which introduces students to wisdom traditions and science-based interventions that can help them build resilience as they navigate new and uncertain realities. It boils down to a three-part approach that links individuals, their communities and the planet: forge inner resilience, build community and re-cultivate your relationship with nature.

“I think what it does is create a buffer of mental and physical resilience, so that we are not just sitting there, feeling and experiencing harm when we think about climate change,” Chungyalpa said. “We actually have a sense of agency, which is important and necessary for our well-being.”

The course was previously offered through UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute. In May, the Loka Initiative will launch a free online version on the platform edX. Chungyalpa hopes it will serve future environmental leaders and people on the frontlines of climate change, from BIPOC and queer communities to young people in the Global South.

Winter devotees adapt

close ups of frozen ice shards making complex patterns
Courtesy of Ar Schneller
Ar Schneller found winter delight in shards of ice found on Lake Superior's shore.

These strategies echo how our winter devotees are already adapting to a new reality. Through the unpredictable winter, Havenwoods educator Mia Noel looked to nature for lessons on getting through the season’s challenges, sharing insights on the winter wellness walks she leads.

“Some of [nature’s] survival techniques are like being in community with others,” Noel said. “Like there’s birds that huddle together on a branch to stay warm, which is the cutest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Ar Schneller, who misses exploring the ice caves, sought out other forms of winter magic. In shards of ice that chatter in the lake, glowing rocks on the Upper Peninsula’s beaches. In the northern lights, which she runs out to greet in the middle of the night.

“There are times when I’m as excited to see the northern lights as I am the ice caves,” she said. “My husband goes to bed early, but when they’re spectacular, I will run downstairs and grab him. I won’t leave his bedside unless he gets up.”

Schneller said maybe she’ll start a Facebook page for aurora chasers next. To build community around a new tradition — that doesn’t depend on the weather.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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