This study investigated variability and trends in the annual snow-cover cycle in regions covering high-latitude and high-elevation land areas in the Northern Hemisphere. The annual snow-cover cycle was examined with respect to the week of the last-observed snow cover in spring (WLS), the week of the first-observed snow cover in autumn (WFS), and the duration of the snow-free period (DSF). The analysis used a 29-year time-series (1972–2000) of weekly, visible-band satellite observations of Northern Hemisphere snow cover from NOAA with corrections applied by D. Robinson of Rutgers University Climate Laboratory. Substantial interannual variability was observed in WLS, WFS and DSF (standard deviations of 0·8–1·1, 0·7–0·9 and 1·0–1·4 weeks, respectively), which is related directly to interannual variability in snow-cover area in the regions and time periods of snow-cover transition. Over the nearly three-decade study period, WLS shifted earlier by 3–5 days/decade as determined by linear regression analysis. The observed shifts in the annual snow-cover cycle underlie a significant trend toward a longer annual snow-free period. The DSF increased by 5–6 days/decade over the study period, primarily as a result of earlier snow cover disappearance in spring. The observed trends are consistent with reported trends in the timing and length of the active growing season as determined from satellite observations of vegetation greenness and the atmospheric CO2 record. Copyright © 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.