The Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland is one of many European icons covered in snow.
NEW YORK- It’s supposed to be cold in Europe in February. Just not this cold.
An historically frigid cold snap has descended upon the continent,claiming the lives of over 300 and dumping snow across Europe and even into some parts of Northern Africa. The Sahara, the world’s largest desert has seen snow in 2012 for the first time in decades. Ukraine, no stranger to cold weather, has seen 122 deaths and had temperatures plunge to -38.1 degree Celsius. Ice and snow have grounded airplanes, stalled trains, and created romantic (or eerie, depending on your perspective) scenes of frozen and rivers in some of Europe’s greatest cities.
A variety of factors play into why Europe is so exceptionally cold; some natural, others, perhaps, less so.
One reason is the patterns of arctic air currents, which periodically bring warm air or cold air across the North Atlantic, regulating the severity of winters. The currents (or “Arctic Oscillation” as it’s called) are currently in a negative phase, meaning that they will bring cold air.
While shifting patterns in Arctic Oscillation are natural, the extent to which they have shifted may not be. Stu Ostro, a meteorologist, points out that “there has been extreme variability of the Arctic Oscillation in recent years” which has coincided with a “precipitous decline of Arctic sea ice volume.”
Scientists at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam have pointed out that as polar ice melts as a result of increased carbon emissions, solar heat that would have been reflected back into the atmosphere is absorbed into ocean water, warming it and accelerating the rate at which the ice melts. As warm air rises from the oceans, it creates unpredictable conditions in the atmosphere, leading to the Arctic Oscillation described by Mr. Ostro.
Omar Baddour, the Chief of Global Climate Monitoring of the World Meteorological Organization, has offered a similar explanation, though points out that it is still too early to say exactly what is causing this intense cold. “Take it as a hypothesis,” he said in a press conference at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on Tuesday. “It needs to be yet confirmed by more solid and more robust scientific studies…practically it needs strong observation network over the ocean, a deep ocean, to see how the circulation is really changing.”
In the incredibly complex global ecosystem it is difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of a specific meteorological phenomenon, especially one as pervasive as this cold snap. Whatever the cause, it could be about to break. In his press conference, Mr. Baddour announced that the high pressure system causing the cold weather was starting to neutralize and that results could be felt as early as next week. He expects temperatures to approach their seasonal averages by the end of the month.