The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a ‘totally insane’ warm spell is upending winter around the world

Artificial snow is seen Wednesday on a ski slope in Wildhaus, Switzerland. Like other parts of Europe, Switzerland has experienced relatively warm weather over the past week. (Gian Ehrenzeller/Keystone/AP)

Across much of the Northern Hemisphere, this winter is a lot warmer than usual.

Europe is experiencing a record-shattering warm spell, with meteorologists calling the current heat wave “totally insane” and “the most extreme event ever seen in European climatology.” On New Year’s Day, at least seven nations experienced their warmest January weather on record, with some cities in Spain and France sweating as temperatures rose to over 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

And despite a bone-chilling storm that passed over much of the United States around Christmas, temperatures remain higher than average in much of the South and New England. In New York City, visitors to Central Park got a taste of shorts weather as temperatures hit 66 degrees Wednesday.

As the globe warms, winters around the world are changing. Since 1970, winter in the United States has warmed faster than any other season, leading to early blooms, shortened winter sports seasons and disrupted hibernations for wildlife.

The effects of this warm winter — some good, others bad — are already rippling around the world.

An energy crisis averted in Europe

It was supposed to be a dark winter on the European continent.

After launching its invasion of Ukraine, Russia restricted the flow of natural gas to Western European countries that are supporting the Ukrainian government. Europe had braced for an energy “nightmare” in which energy-intensive manufacturing could slow and home heating costs spike.

But Mother Nature had a different plan. Forecasts for abnormally warm weather dampened demand, and European natural gas futures fell to their lowest level since the beginning of the war.

“We are quite lucky with the weather,” said Georg Zachmann, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel. Europe also sought new energy supplies, such as U.S. liquefied natural gas, to reduce Russian leverage.

Russia, he added, “certainly had hoped to put Europe on the brink of either some countries begging for gas, and therefore destroying the unity in Europe, or really creating massive turmoil.”

“That did not play out.”

A shortened season in ski country

Elsewhere in Europe, the warm weather is bad news. As glaciers recede and snow becomes scarcer, climate change threatens to hit the skiing industry hard. Across the Alps, springlike weather is forcing some snowless ski resorts to close early this year.

In Switzerland, temperatures are so high that the organizers of the annual ski World Cup this month are turning to artificial snow, according to the BBC. As the Swiss weather service MeteoSuisse joked on its blog, “This turn of the new year could almost make you forget that it’s the height of winter.”

Some ski resorts in the United States are hurting, too. Although over two feet of snow in mid-December provided plenty of powder for customers at the Wild Wings Ski Touring Center in Southern Vermont to trek on cross-country skis or snowshoes, by New Year’s Day, a bout of “rainy, yucky weather” had ruined business, said co-owner Tracy Black.

“We need it to be cold, and we need it to snow,” she added.

It’s a change that’s impossible to ignore for skiing proprietors such as Black, who has lived in Vermont for four decades.

“There have been some highs. There have been some lows,” she said. “But that average is what’s creeping up.”

Misshapen peaches in Georgia

A warm winter can also wreak havoc on farms, allowing parasites to persist and trees to bud prematurely.

In Georgia, the concern this winter for growers is peaches. Without enough cold, the state’s iconic fruit cannot thrive. Peach trees need a certain number of “chill hours” — the amount depends on the variety — to form flower buds and produce plump fruit later in the year, according to Jeff Cook, a peach agent at the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.

“We’re always worried about cold,” he said. “But really, you can’t worry too much. We can’t do much about it.”

Come spring, peaches grown after too balmy of a winter tend to be smaller and misshapen, making them harder to sell. And they often ripen erratically, requiring more time to pick. Over the past two decades, peach growers have seen winter temperatures climb, Cook said.

Ultimately, though, the fruit is still good eating, Cook said. “They taste just as good as the rest,” he said.

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