We like to think we know about snow here in Vermont. We have about two feet of the white stuff on the ground—the settled depth from several storms this year. I spent a couple hours pushing back the deepening piles along our driveway with my tractor, getting ready for the next storm, and my neck is still a little stiff from raking snow off a roof the other day (not the roof of our house, mind you). But for the most part, I’m enjoying the snow. It’s a winter-lover’s winter here in Vermont!
But it’s become a nightmare in Boston and Providence, and Portland—coastal cities that have gotten battered by the Nor’easters that have marched up the coast since the first of the year and Clippers that have brought in snow from the West. Boston has had about six feet of snow in the past month, 42 inches so far in February—and the month is just half over. I’ve lost track of just which one the Blizzard of 2015 was, since there have been so many. Coastal New England has run out of places to dump the snow. Roofs are collapsing. Tempers are flaring. Schools have been cancelled so many days that students may be in classes into July.
And this weekend another 10-14 inches is expected in Boston, perhaps two feet up the coast in Portland. Some of this morning’s articles are referring to this one as a “snow hurricane,” since the barometric pressure is expected to drop as low as it does during a Category 2 hurricane. Wind speeds up to 70 mph are expected, making this potentially one of the most severe blizzards in years—though with less snow than earlier winter storms this year.
Something’s going on with the weather
One can’t say with certainty why this winter is so severe or what is causing this weekend’s storm. But the harsh winters we’ve had in the Northeast the past couple years are consistent with climate models. More moisture is held in the atmosphere, a dramatically warming arctic is changing global circulation patterns, and a warmer Atlantic allows storm systems to pick up steam.
It sounds like we need to get used to intense winters here in New England. And if that’s the case, we should be prepared for them.
Winter storms and resilience
To me, this calls for a greater focus on resilience. That was one of our priorities in building (re-building) our house in Dummerston. My wife will do just fine in our new house with almost any winter storm event Nature could throw at us.
Relative to the roof and snow, we designed the roof with standing-seam metal roofing to shed snow; if snow isn’t shed fully, the structure is ample to carry many feet of snow; the house is well enough insulated and tight enough that we will never have ice dams; we have deep overhangs that most of the snow sliding off the roof keeps away from the walls; and we don’t have basement windows that could be damaged by snow cascading off the roof.
We designed our driveway to be able to handle a lot of snow and move it out of the way fairly easily—though I recognize that being in rural Vermont is far different in this respect than being in urban Boston or Cambridge. I admit that it also helps to have a tractor with front-end loader to move excess amounts of snow around when necessary.
Most importantly, if we get four or five feet of snow that shuts everything down—as has pretty-much happened in Boston over the past three weeks—we can hole up in our house and do just fine. Our house was designed with passive survivability in mind: it’s so well insulated that even if we lose power during a snowstorm we can keep comfortable with our tiny wood stove.
And as I discussed in an article a couple weeks ago, an important aspect of resilience is food. We keep enough food in the house to live on for at least several weeks. After six weeks, we might be boiling up those dried soy beans that we bought by mistake ten years ago and have kept around, but we’d do quite well for at least three weeks. I do want to go a little further in this department: figuring out a system to store durable goods in a way that we use the oldest first.
Cooking food would be an issue if we lose power, as our house is all-electric, but we have some options. We selected a wood stove that has a cast-iron top that we could cook on. We were attracted to some Vermont-made soapstone wood stoves, but soapstone takes an extremely long time to heat enough to boil water. Also, I recently bought a wood-burning backpacking-type cook stove that I’ll write about after I get a chance to test it. We could cook outside on our covered porch with that stove if necessary.
Being able to cook during power outages is the one reason I might recommend a gas stove, but my general feeling is that the indoor air quality problems that result from cooking with gas outweigh the resilience benefits.
Watching the news
I feel terrible about what my friends on the New England coast are going through—and I fear it will get worse with this latest storm. They’ve been through a lot over the past month.
As we build new homes and apartments and renovate older ones, resilience should become a higher priority. With a resilient home you can enjoy these storms.
Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed. To receive e-mail notices of new blogs, sign up at the top of the page.