Warming behind biting winters

Counter-intuitive but true, say scientists: a string of freezing European winters scattered over the last decade has been driven in the large part by global warming. The culprit, according to a new study, is the Arctic’s receding surface ice, which is at current rates of decline could disappear entirely during summer months by the 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 seemsĀ  poised to deliver a repeat performance. At first glance, the flurry of frostiness would seem to be at odds with standard climate change scenarios climate change scenarios in which Earth’s temperature steadily rises, possibly by as much as 5 or 6 degree Celsius 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% 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.

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