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

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."

Without snow to brighten the short dark days, "people are beginning to feel depressed," said Andrei Babin, a Moscow psychotherapist.

Meteorologists blame extremely strong and long-lasting cyclones over the Atlantic Ocean, but they also say the clement weather is linked to global warming.

"We have been monitoring weather for 150 years in Moscow, and we haven't seen anything like this," said Dmitry Kiktyov, deputy head of the Hydrometeorological Center of Russia. "I think it's time to change our temperature norms because the climate is changing and the last decade was very warm, much warmer than all previous decades."

Five days with record high temperatures have been posted this month in Moscow, including Friday, when the mercury hit 47.48 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Moscow's weather service.

Moscow area resorts are also without snow. "The only thing left for us to do is pray," said Nil Minazitdinov, head of the business office at the Sorochany resort near Moscow. "Our resort, like other resorts here and in Europe, have suffered great losses because of the weather."

That has skiers feeling deprived.

"It's very sad. It means we'll have to spend another weekend at home," said Yulia Vaganova, 31, an avid skier who has taken to looking at snow on the Internet. "It's absolutely impossible to ski."

In a Moscow park, Yury Zasorin, a 51-year-old street cleaner, is feeling good and taking it easy. "Last year we had to use axes to break the ice and remove huge snowdrifts," he said. "This winter is great. No snow and not so many people, so I only have a few cigarette butts to clean up."

Nearby, Natalia Ilyina, 45, who was playing with her 3-year-old daughter, Dasha, sighed and said, "We are waiting for the real winter -- snow, sun and frost -- so we can go sledding and skiing."

As the writer Aleksandr Pushkin reminds Russians in his 1833 novel-in-verse, "Evgeny Onegin," there's always January:

That year the autumn weather lingered

Around the yards, over the field

Nature waited, lost, as winter held back

Snow fell only in January, on the third, at night.

Correspondent Mary Jordan in London and special correspondent Anna Masterova in Moscow contributed to this report.

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