Winter: The Coldest Season

Winter is often associated with plunging temperatures and icy weather, but its impact and timing changes according to location. Most people think the coldest season begins during the winter solstice, but there are in fact two definitions of winter. Let's take a look at this cool time of year.

snow in Denmark

The above winter landscape of frosty trees and shrubbery is in Denmark, a Scandinavian country in Northern Europe. The days are short in Denmark during the winter, with sunsets occurring at about 3:45 p.m.
Credit: Dhoxax | shutterstock

Shifting time frames

The coldest season of the year, winter comes between autumn and spring. The farther an area lies from the equator, the colder temperatures it experiences. Temperatures in equatorial regions stay relatively constant despite the shifting seasons.

Most people refer to astronomical winter when they refer to the season. Ranging from the winter solstice to the vernal equinox, astronomical winter has to do with Earth's position around the sun. During the winter solstice — which falls on December 21 or 22 in the Northern Hemisphere and June 20 or 21 in the Southern Hemisphere — the path that the sun travels in the sky reaches its lowest point. It is the shortest day of the year, and has been noted and celebrated by a wide variety of cultures around the world. [Gallery: Images of Stunning Snowy Landscapes]

During the winter solstice, the corresponding pole is tipped about 23.4 degrees away from the sun. On that day in the Northern Hemisphere, the North Pole is farther from the heat-producing star, while the Southern Hemisphere, which experiences summer, is closer. The two poles switch for the solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.

But anyone who regularly engages in winter sports might tell you that winter weather tends to fall before the middle of December or June. Meteorological winter falls sooner, spanning the three month period from December to March. Based on weather such as snow and ice, meteorological winter doesn't rely on Earth's journey around the sun. While astronomical winter begins on the same date for the whole hemisphere, meteorological winter comes earlier for those farther from the equator.

winter, weather, snowstorms

Adapting to the weather

Winter brings many changes to the world around it. Some animals may avoid the dropping temperatures by traveling to warmer climates, or migrating. Others may begin a period of hibernation, passing much of the winter in a near-sleep state. Because many plants die or are dormant, animals may stockpile food to help them through periods of want.

In addition to changing their locations and habits, some animals may also change their appearance. Animals such as hares and foxes may change their coloration to blend into snowy landscapes better. Other animals might grow thicker fur to help them to stay warm.

Unusual winters

Although winter tends to be a hard time for animals and humans alike, some winters host more extreme weather than others. Some of the extreme storms are listed below:

Known as the Storm of the Century, a storm system that formed over the Gulf of Mexico in March of 1993 blanketed the Eastern United States with snowfall, hurricane-force winds, and scattered tornadoes. The storm affected 26 states, with snow falling as far south as the usually sunny Jacksonville, Florida. Drifts piled up as high as 35 feet, and many Southern states, unprepared for the need for large-scale snow removal, shut down completely.

Danube River frozen
Ice floes on the Danube in Budapest, as seen on Feb. 11, 2012.
Credit: adambotond/flickr

In February 2012, a deadly cold wave ravaged Europe, causing more than 800 deaths. Temperatures reached as low as minus 38.6 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 39.2 Celsius), and snow blanketed several countries, setting records for many of them. The second-longest river in Europe, the Danube, froze, as did the Venice canals. Northern Africa also felt the breath of the storm, with snow covering parts of the Sahara. More than 100,000 people were trapped by snow and ice.

In the winter of 1783, temperatures dropped significantly in Europe, reaching as low as 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C).

In March 1888, a snowstorm blanketed Maine down to Washington, D.C. Over four feet of snow dropped in Connecticut and Massachusetts, while New York and New Jersey boasted almost three and a half feet. The storm sank 200 ships and killed 400 people.

In November 1940, a blizzard quickly plunged temperatures from 60 degrees down to single digits. Winds of up to 80 mph pushed snow into twenty-foot drifts across the Midwest.  The surprise weather change claimed the lives of 144 people.

Antarctica currently boasts the lowest temperature on record. On July 21, 1983, temperatures at the Russian station, Vostok, reached minus 128.6 degrees F (minus 89 C). Canada's lowest temperature was recorded Feb. 3, 1947, at minus 81 F (minus 63 C), while temperatures in the United States reached minus 79.8 F (minus 62 C) in northern Alaska on Jan. 23, 1971.

Historically, the Little Ice Age is probably the most memorable period of extreme cold, although it spanned a number of years. Samples of dead plant material revealed that temperatures dropped roughly from 1275 to 1300, bringing extremely cold temperatures to Europe and North America. Large rivers, including the Thames in England, froze completely. A number of causes for the surprising drop in temperature have been proposed, including changes in solar and volcanic activity.

frozen thames
A famous painting from 1677, The Frozen Thames, shows the enormous river in England frozen solid during the Little Ice Age.
Credit: Public domain

Winter quotes

"Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face."
— Victor Hugo

"Now is the winter of our discontent."
— William Shakespeare

“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
― Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Winter is not a season, it's an occupation.”
― Sinclair Lewis

“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.”
― Edith Sitwell

"You can't get too much winter in the winter."
— Robert Frost

“Winter is nature's way of saying, 'Up yours.'”
― Robert Byrne

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
― John Steinbeck

“Melancholy were the sounds on a winter's night.”
― Virginia Woolf

"I had slumps that lasted into the winter."
— Bob Uecker

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Nola Taylor Redd

Nola Taylor Redd is a contributing writer for Live Science and She combines her degrees in English and Astrophysics to write about science, with an emphasis on all things space-related.
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