In Balmy Europe, Feverish Choruses of 'Let It Snow'

A hiker in the Alps near Stels, Switzerland, passes a small lake, uncharacteristically without ice, while the mountains are free of snow.
A hiker in the Alps near Stels, Switzerland, passes a small lake, uncharacteristically without ice, while the mountains are free of snow. (By Arno Balzarini -- Keystone Via Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

MOSCOW, Dec. 19 -- Scattered flurries teased Moscow on Tuesday afternoon with the promise of a real winter, the birthright of a city whose people take pride in trudging through snow and in ice fishing and cross-country skiing in white countryside beyond the outer beltway.

The winter of 2006 has yet to arrive, however, and Muscovites are deeply discombobulated. "I want snow. I want the New Year's feeling," said Viktoria Makhovskaya, a street vendor who sells gloves and mittens. "This is a disgusting winter. I don't like it at all."

Moscow is not alone in the unexpected warmth -- it stretches across the continent.

Preliminary data from the Met Office, Britain's national weather service, and the University of East Anglia indicate that 2006 has been the warmest year in Britain since record-keeping concerning weather conditions began in central England in 1659.

Trees are sprouting leaves in Switzerland. And low-altitude ski resorts across the Alps look more like springtime meadows. "We are currently experiencing the warmest period in the Alpine region in 1,300 years," Reinhard Boehm, a climatologist at Austria's Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics, told the Associated Press in Vienna.

Boehm was one of the authors of a European Union-funded climate study that found similar warming periods in the 10th and 12th centuries. But, he said, it's warmer now, and "it will undoubtedly get warmer in the future."

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warns in a report this month "that climate change poses serious risks to the snow reliability of Alpine ski areas, and consequently to the regional economies that depend upon winter tourism."

Up to 80 million people visit Alpine resorts each year, and they are a key contributor to the local economies, the report says.

"The Alps are particularly sensitive to climate change and recent warming there has been roughly three times the global average," the report says. On average, 90 percent of 666 medium to large Alpine ski areas now have adequate snow cover for at least 100 days a year. The remaining 10 percent are already operating under marginal conditions.

A rise in average temperature of 1 degree Celsius (about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) could reduce the number of what the report calls "snow-reliable" ski areas to about 500. A rise of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) would cut that number to 400.

The Washington area has logged record high temperatures recently as well, which meteorologists attribute to atmospheric and oceanic disruptions in the tropical Pacific Ocean known as El Niño.

In Moscow, the streets have been stubbornly dry and gray in recent weeks. Parks, fields and forests are carpeted in alien hues of green and sprouting mushrooms. At the Moscow Zoo, the brown bears are awake and moody. And some birds, according to zoo spokeswoman Elena Mendosa, "are making love in ponds because they apparently believe spring has come."

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