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Joy is fleeting, like the snow under my son’s feet

For most of my life, I've considered snow a cold, wet blanket. I was born an unrepentant winter whiner, and once had an August snowstorm nightmare that left me gloomy until the next spring. But in recent years, the icy season has grown on me and this year my goal is to embrace it wholeheartedly.

I'm embarking on a concerted feel-good strategy, an attempt to counter both the lack of sunlight and the larger, gloomier global politics forecast. I am counting my blessings and appreciating what I have before it's gone: This includes my son's childhood, since he turns three soon, and each of his little winters has been more fun than the last.

He loves snow, and stood at the front window waiting for it for weeks. "Look how much SNOW there is, Mommy!" he yelled in November, pointing at slightly slushy raindrops. A few centimetres have stayed on the ground since then and we have thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

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On one day, he was all smiles and little white teeth, exclaiming each time a flake hit his fat cheeks. I asked what his favourite thing was about snow and he immediately replied "crunching." In trying to fully experience joy, I've realized that it's essentially a simple emotion.

I'm also accepting that it's simply smaller than despair: more personal, more specific, and harder to share.

That's exactly why it's more precious. As the world keeps spinning on its high-stakes axis, tiny joys are why those stakes matter. Joy is a toddler's wobbly legs swish-swishing in hand-me-down snow pants – and snow, and the joy it brings, is endangered.

"This year is going to be the warmest year on record," says Richard Kelly, a professor at the University of Waterloo. Prof. Kelly works in the department of geography and environmental management. His focus is snow, specifically tracking how much is falling where, and when.

Because of climate change, he says, most of Canada can expect reduced snowfall and a shorter snow season for the foreseeable future. Seconding this prediction is a 53-year study by Natural Resources Canada.

"It's really important that we care about snow, for lots of reasons," Prof. Kelly says. There are high stakes at play, highest for ice-dependent communities.

The greatest rise in temperatures is happening in the Arctic: dark water, unlike white snow, absorbs heat, creating a vicious cycle of warming and thawing. This is altering the life cycles of animals traditionally eaten by the Inuit, while mushy snow and cracking ice make hunting itself more dangerous.

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This is scariest in the North, but it affects us all. Prof. Kelly says Calgary's 2013 flood was partly caused by an early rainfall that in past years would have drifted down as snow. Plus, he says, most of Canada's "water budget" (the geographer's term for water flow in and out of any given area), depends on snow.

As we grapple with the global effects of climate change, we also face the slow elimination of our small pleasures. In 2014, Prof. Kelly's colleague Dan Scott led a study predicting which of the past 19 Winter Olympics host cities could potentially host 50 years in the future. Only six – including Calgary, but not Vancouver – emerged as reliably snowy.

Ironically, creating fake powder – which is used on 98 per cent of hills in the U.S. Northeast, more than 60 per cent of Austrian slopes and 35 per cent of runs in Switzerland – requires the use of resources that have their own environmental drawbacks. The Canadian Wildlife Federation estimates up to a 55-per-cent reduction in the winter sports season in this country by 2020.

My appreciation of snow is late, but genuine: to the Prairie-born, I concede that winter air is crisp and invigorating.

I look forward to a season of tobogganing and snowball throwing, plus watching my little one learn to skate (attempting to stay upright on ice is my limit).

All of these plans, of course, rely on abundant white stuff falling, something over which I have no control.

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Joy is unpredictable and fleeting, like a snowflake. It's a wonder to experience, and fragile.

Video: See the colourful life forms beneath Antarctic sea ice
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