Freezing cold March sets records across Europe

March 29, 2013
Traffic passes snow drifts near Colne in northern England, March 27, 2013. The weather this spring is in contrast to that of last March which was the third warmest on record. (Jon Super - AP)
Traffic passes snow drifts near Colne in northern England, March 27, 2013. The weather this spring is in contrast to that of last March which was the third warmest on record. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

Like much of the eastern U.S., Europe has been stubbornly cold this March. In spring’s absence, arctic air and heavy snowfall more typical of January have kept temperatures some 3 to 4ºC below normal across the continent.

The Met Office reports this has been the UK’s coldest March since 1962, with an average temperature 3ºC (5.4ºF) below normal. Through March 26, the mean national temperature was 2.5ºC, making it the 4th coldest March since records began in 1910.

Provisional average March temperatures recorded in the UK in 2013. (Met Office)
Provisional average March temperatures recorded in the UK in 2013. (Met Office)

Last weekend, a severe snowstorm buried parts of central England and Northern Ireland with up to a foot of snow. The storm brought whiteout conditions to some areas and caused thousands of newborn lambs to perish in the cold. Locations in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk measured 7 to 9 inches of snow on the ground as of March 24, which is exceptionally rare for so late in March.


A sheep and her lambs are pictured on a snow covered field in the hills of Domore, Northern Ireland, on March 26, 2013. A Royal Air Force helicopter was deployed in Northern Ireland in a bid to reach remote farms where estimates suggest up to 10,000 animals have been buried beneath snowdrifts 20 feet (six metres) high. (PETER MUHLY – AFP)

In Germany, the cold has been especially relentless. A new press release from the German weather service (DWD) reports that this month was the second coldest March in 50 years, behind only 1987. It’s the opposite extreme of last year, when March 2012 was the country’s third warmest on record.

Nationally, the average March 2013 temperature in Germany was a remarkable 4.1ºC (7.4ºF) below the 1981-2010 normal (6th coldest since records began in 1881). While far from an all-time record, this year was notable for its persistent cold and heavy snowfall so late in the month.

An Easter Bunny made out of snow is pictured on the side of the road to advertise rooms for rent in Ahrenshoop, Germany. This year Easter will be colder than last Christmas in Germany with snow expected in the northeast. (Bernd Wustneck - AFP)
An Easter Bunny made out of snow is pictured on the side of the road to advertise rooms for rent in Ahrenshoop, Germany. This year Easter will be colder than last Christmas in Germany with snow expected in the northeast. (Bernd Wustneck – AFP)

Berlin, for example, has had continual snow cover since March 10 – recently peaking at 7.9 inches. The DWD writes that such abundant snow cover in the final 10 days of March has not been measured in the German capital since 1892. The average March temperature in the German capital was only 31ºF, some 8 degrees F below normal.

In the Potsdam district southwest of Berlin, temperatures held below freezing for 15 consecutive days. And on March 24 the overnight low of -18.9ºC (-2ºF) set a record for all-time coldest temperature ever recorded in the state of Brandenburg during the final ten days of March.

Cold in central and eastern Europe

The March cold snap has been equally persistent elsewhere on the continent. Two other records worth mentioning:

Record winter snowfall in Moscow: The Russian capital has seen historic snowfall this winter. Wunderground reports nearly 118” had fallen through the end of February alone, which is 180 percent of normal. After more heavy snows this month, winter 2012-13 will likely become Moscow’s snowiest on record.

Subfreezing high temperature records in Austria: Days with high temperatures below freezing are “extremely rare” after March 20 in Austria’s major cities, writes the Austrian Meteorological Service. Earlier this week, however, several locations broke records for the latest date with a subfreezing maximum temperature. In Vienna, the high was only -1.7ºC (28ºF) on March 25. Previously, the latest date of a subfreezing high temperature in the Austrian capital was March 23, 1958 when the maximum was -1.2ºC (29ºF).

What’s driving the cold?

Northern hemisphere surface temperature anomalies in March 2013. High pressure and above-average temperatures over Greenland have brought arctic air unusually far south this month. (NOAA ESRL)
Northern hemisphere surface temperature departures from normal in March 2013. High pressure and above-average temperatures over Greenland have brought arctic air unusually far south. (NOAA ESRL)

Responsible for the unusual weather is the same jet stream pattern bringing unseasonably cold air to the eastern United States. The sharply negative North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) index has weakened the normal pressure gradient over the North Atlantic, instead allowing a stubborn area of high pressure to remain locked over Scandinavia. Clockwise rotation around that high has sent freezing northeasterly winds into Germany and as far west as the UK and Ireland.

While the cold will inevitably lose its grip as the spring sun gains strength, April will start cooler than normal across much of Europe. Models currently suggest high pressure over Scandinavia will stay put for another week, but may retreat far enough north to pull in milder air from the Atlantic. This will help temperatures moderate but also raises the chance of wet, unsettled weather in the UK and Germany.

For now, the wintry pattern will finish out the month, as cold easterly winds and overnight frost are forecast for the UK this Easter weekend.

Related:

Heavy March snow halts travel in northwestern Europe

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Don Lipman · March 29, 2013