LONDON — Much of Europe woke up Wednesday to yet another day of a cold spell that may have turned the streets of London, Rome and other capitals into pretty photo scenes but also has cost lives across the continent. Neither London nor Rome usually experience temperatures dropping below freezing during winters.
Europeans seeking to escape the blast of icy air dubbed the “Beast from the East” to warmer places may want to think about heading north rather than south. As Europe is buried under snow, the Arctic is witnessing one of its warmest winters ever. In fact, parts of the Arctic Circle have been warmer than much of Europe over the past few days.
Last Sunday, for example, the temperature in Britain fell to 23 degrees, while northern Greenland was at 43 degrees. On Wednesday, temperatures in Poland's capital Warsaw reached only 19 degrees at a time when the town of Sisimiut, to the north of the Arctic Circle in Greenland, still was over 21 degrees. And while temperatures there are expected to rise to almost 40 degrees on Thursday, they'll drop to 25 degrees in Berlin.
“It’s never been this warm. It’s really, really unprecedented, I would say,” Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist for the Danish Meteorological Institute, told German broadcaster DW.
While occasional warm winters in the Arctic have been observed since 1896, climate change scientists say that the current string of warm Arctic winters is part of a disturbing new pattern that could be linked to colder European temperatures.
“These (winter warming) events are not unusual, but they are happening more frequently and with longer durations,” said Robert Graham, a climate scientist at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø, Norway, according to the American Geophysical Union (AGU).
Graham and other scientists recently teamed up for a study on the phenomenon and found that storms may be responsible for the unusual frequency of warming events. “In the most recent years of the study, each warming event was associated with a major storm entering the region. During these storms, strong winds from the south blow warm, moist air from the Atlantic into the Arctic,” said an AGU summary of Graham’s findings. Even though the exact mechanisms that are driving the proliferation of storms are still unknown, the researchers say they believe climate change is likely to be blamed.
Storms that make temperatures rise in the Arctic can have the opposite impact in Europe, as they weaken the low-pressure zone known as “polar vortex” that usually keeps the icy air in the Arctic. Their impact can be felt in both places.
While mayors across Europe are launching emergency schemes to shelter homeless people and prevent more freezing deaths, researchers in the Arctic fear ripple effects, saying the storms have “raised temperatures in the region close to the melting point, hindered sea ice growth while its associated strong winds pushed the sea ice edge back, leading to a record low spring sea ice pack in 2016,” according to the researchers quoted on AGU's website.
Scientists fear the record-low sea ice will speed the melting of the Arctic permafrost and polar ice caps, eventually leading to sea level rises across the globe, drowning many of the world’s most important cities.
This winter could be even worse, with almost a third of the Bering Sea’s ice cover vanishing within days.
The warnings do not appear to have triggered much concern in the White House, so far. The United States is the only nation in the world that rejects the 2015 Paris climate accord, after the other two nations outside of the agreement, Nicaragua and Syria, signed it.
The chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has led recent efforts to question the existing climate change science, reflecting skepticism within the U.S. government about the scale of the challenge. The EPA also rejected claims that devastating hurricanes in recent weeks were worsened by climate change.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord came last summer as the White House was preparing to rewrite Obama-era rules that were supposed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. officials feared that being part of the Paris climate agreement and seeking to reverse some of those curbs could have weakened the U.S. government’s position in future lawsuits.
But climate change researchers and U.S. allies abroad fear Trump may ultimately come to regret his decision, as the absence of action’s repercussions are emerging more clearly.
More on WorldViews: