The risk of severe winters in Europe and northern Asia has been doubled by global warming, according to new research. The counter-intuitive finding is the result of climate change melting the Arctic ice cap and causing new wind patterns that push freezing air and snow southwards.
Severe winters over the last decade have been associated with those years in which the melting of Arctic sea ice was greatest. But the new work is the most comprehensive computer modelling study to date and indicates the frozen winters are being caused by climate change, not simply by natural variations in weather.
“The origin of frequent Eurasian severe winters is global warming,” said Prof Masato Mori, at the University of Tokyo, who led the new research. Climate change is heating the Arctic much faster than lower latitudes and the discovery that the chances of severe winters has already doubled shows that the impacts of global warming are not only a future threat. Melting Arctic ice has also been implicated in recent wet summers in the UK.
The new research, published in Nature Geoscience, shows that the increased risk of icy winters will persist for the next few decades. But beyond that continued global warming overwhelms the colder winter weather. The Arctic is expected to be ice-free in late summer by the 2030s, halting the changes to wind patterns, while climate change will continue to increase average temperatures.