Biting winters driven by global warming: scientists

A A A

Counter-intuitive but true, say scientists: a string of freezing European winters scattered over the last decade has been driven in large part by global warming.

The culprit, according to a new study, is the Arctic's receding surface ice, which at current rates of decline could to disappear entirely during summer months by century's end.

The mechanism uncovered triples the chances that future winters in Europe and north Asia will be similarly inclement, the study reports.

Bitingly cold weather wreaked havoc across Europe in the winter months of 2005-2006, dumping snow in southern Spain and plunging eastern Europe and Russia into an unusually - and deadly - deep freeze.

Another sustained cold streak in 2009-2010, gave Britain its coldest winter in 14 years, and wreaked transportation havoc across the continent. This year seems poised to deliver a repeat performance.

At first glance, this flurry of frostiness would seem to be at odds with standard climate change scenarios in which Earth's temperature steadily rises, possibly by as much as five or six degrees Celsius (9.0 to 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100.

Climate sceptics who question the gravity of global warming or that humans are to blame point to the deep chills as confirmation of their doubts.

Such assertions, counter scientists, mistakenly conflate the long-term patterns of climate with the short-term vagaries of weather, and ignore regional variation in climate change impacts.

New research, however, goes further, showing that global warming has actually contributed to Europe's winter blues.

Rising temperatures in the Arctic - increasing at two to three times the global average - have peeled back the region's floating ice cover by 20 percent over the last three decades.

This has allowed more of the Sun's radiative force to be absorbed by dark-blue sea rather than bounced back into space by reflective ice and snow, accelerating the warming process.

More critically for weather patterns, it has also created a massive source of heat during the winter months.

"Say the ocean is at zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit)," said Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

"That is a lot warmer than the overlying air in the polar area in winter, so you get a major heat flow heating up the atmosphere from below which you don't have when it is covered by ice. That's a massive change," he told AFP in an interview.

The result, according to a modelling study published earlier this month the Journal of Geophysical Research, is a strong high-pressure system over the newly-exposed sea which brings cold polar air, swirling counter-clockwise, into Europe.

"Recent severe winters like last year's or the one of 2005-2006 do not conflict with the global warming picture, but rather supplement it," explained Vladimir Petoukhov, lead author of the study and a physicist at the Potsdam Institute.

"These anomalies could triple the probability of cold winter extremes in Europe and north Asia," he said.

The researchers created a computer model simulating the impact on weather patterns of a gradual reduction of winter ice cover in the Barents-Kara Sea, north of Scandinavia.

Other possible explanations for uncommonly cold winters - reduced Sun activity or changes in the Gulf Stream - "tend to exaggerate their effect," Petoukhov said.

He also points out that during the freezing 2005-2006 winter, when temperatures averaged 10 C below normal in Siberia, there were no unusual variations in the north Atlantic oscillation, another putative cause.

Colder European winters do not indicate a slowing of global warming trends, only an uneven distribution, researchers say.

"As I look out my window is see about 30 centimetres of snow and the thermostat reads -14.0 C," said Rahmstorf, speaking by phone from Potsdam.

"At the same time, in Greenland we have above zero temperatures - in December."

Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas