Winter is Coming: Is the Northeast Ready?
Rising home heating oil prices, fewer snowplow drivers, and potentially "above normal" snow this winter may impact the Northeast.
The Northeast may face a challenging winter:
AccuWeather 2022–2023 winter weather predictions show potentially above average snow fall,
New England home heating oil prices are $4.632 a gallon — an increase of $1.447 from a year ago, and
Like last year the region may face another shortage of snowplow drivers.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a slightly different weather outlook, noting that precipitation in December, January, and February has “Equal Chances,” meaning that the odds of average, above-average, or below-average precipitation are about the same. And, consistent with long-term trends, temperatures are likely to be above average.
The Northeast is accustomed to snow, but a confluence of these things could make the winter season more difficult. It is important to note that long-term forecasts are fun to read, but rarely accurate or useful. Still, lets take a look at the issues facing the Northeast this winter.
Climate Change May Result in Stronger Winter Storms
Across the country weather is getting more extreme: hot-temperature records are being broken nearly annually now, blizzards are likely to become more intense, and warmer temperatures means more precipitation. This last point on precipitation is particularly important, because it also means potentially more snow. It sounds counterintuitive, but as the surface of the ocean warms, the air above it becomes hotter, allowing more water to enter the vapor phase in the atmosphere — this can feed into winter storms and increase snowfall — Northeast winter storms are not like they were.
One research study found that:
The occurrence of severe winter weather in the United States is significantly related to anomalies in pan-Arctic geopotential heights and temperatures. As the Arctic transitions from a relatively cold state to a warmer one, the frequency of severe winter weather in mid-latitudes increases through the transition.
Another study found:
An intensification of extreme snowfall across large areas of the Northern Hemisphere under future warming … Additionally, the average intensity of snowfall events exceeding these percentiles [ 99th and the 99.9th] as experienced historically increases in many regions. This is likely to pose a challenge to municipalities in mid to high latitudes.
Nonetheless, even if AccuWeather’s prediction of some heavier snowfall this year does not hold true, the region may experience increasing snow and more intense winter storms in the future.
There May Still be a Shortage of Plow Drivers this Winter
Last winter a shortage of snowplow drivers was common, caused by a disruption in the transportation labor force. One town in Massachusetts was reportedly paying snowplow drivers up to $310 an hour amid its shortage. A survey by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials found 84% of transportation departments reported higher than normal snowplow vacancies last winter.
The major cause of the shortfall was the tight labor market – something we noted was affecting bus driver shortages. Whether its bus drivers or snowplow operator, the reasons for shortages are the same: Uncompetitive salaries, and an increase in retirements and job switches. Drivers with commercial licenses are highly sought after due to supply chain constraints and can earn a higher wage driving trucks than working for city or state governments.
A recent interview with a Pennsylvania DOT (PennDOT) Safety Officer for the area covering Harrisburg, Lancaster, and York noted that PennDOT doesn’t have enough winter workers: “For example, Lancaster County, we’re down 40 some operators. And that’s not just winter, that’s permanent drivers.”
In the Northeast municipalities and state DOTs are already looking to staff up for winter. Multiple Massachusetts municipalities reported not having enough people to help with the dig-out this past winter, so they are searching now to prepare for this winter. The MA state DOT is also hiring snow and ice vendors; last year the department said it was in “good shape with snowplows.”
Home Heating Oil Prices are Higher
Unlike the rest of the country, Northeast residents survive cold winter days with heating oil. The U.S. EIA reports that in the winter of 2020-21, about 5.3 million households in the U.S. used heating oil (distillate fuel oil) as their main space heating fuel; about 85% of those households were in Northeast. Homes in the northeast transitioned from wood or coal to heating oil in the 1930s, however the Northeast has not transitioned to natural gas or another energy source in part due to a lack of infrastructure.
In particular, the Northeast faces an uncertain heating oil market with prices already well above trend at the start of the colder season. Last month the EIA updated energy prices in its Short-Term Energy Outlook. Heating oil was forecasted to increase 53% from $3.00 per gallon on average in 2021 to $4.61 per gallon in 2022. By comparison, gasoline was expected to increase 32% and electricity by only 7.5%. The dramatic increase in in home heating oil prices has lead Northeast states to request more funding from the Federal government to fund the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
LIHEAP is available to low-income households through the states who apply to the federal government for funds. Preliminary FY 2021 data indicates that with the LIHEAP regular appropriation 50 states and the D.C. provided an estimated $2.9 billion for heating assistance. In preparing for the fiscal 2023 continuing resolution (CR), New England state Governors sent a letter to Congressional leaders supporting the President’s request for $500 million in emergency funds for LIHEAP. Better than the request, the CR included $1 billion in supplemental appropriations for LIHEAP.
Keeping people warm through the winter is a necessity that should not be impaired because of how much it costs. A 2019 study found that a lower heating price reduces winter mortality. In the U.S. about 1,330 people die from cold exposure annually as the cold can worsen existing medical conditions -- many of these are preventable deaths.
Fun Fact: Massachusetts Municipalities Can Amortize Snow Removal Costs
A fun fact about Massachusetts municipalities: state law allows cities and towns to carry a deficit for snow removal expenses from one year to the next.
Extraordinarily, in 2015, the state allowed towns to amortize the shortfall over three years (fiscal 2016 to 2018). According to the state, 149 municipalities had incurred related deficits in fiscal 2015, including the prior year’s amortization, totaling $107.5 million.
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