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Record-setting cold snap hits Europe, stunning spring crops

Temperature difference from normal over Europe early on the morning of April 4. (University of Maine Climate Reanalyzer)

A historically intense April cold snap has descended on Europe, with temperatures plummeting to 20 to 30 degrees (11 to 18 degrees Celsius) below normal. The record-breaking cold has triggered harsh frosts, shocking early-blooming plants and crops in several countries.

The unseasonably cold weather, which arrived over the weekend, follows warmer-than-normal temperatures in previous weeks that caused a rapid greening of flora — particularly in France’s agricultural regions.

“It’s still difficult to evaluate the [damage] caused by the frost, but orchards (‘stone fruits’ such as plum trees, apricot, cherry) and vineyards have been impacted,” Jean-Marc Touzard, director of research at the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE), said in an email.

Climate scientists are concerned that warming late-winter and early-spring temperatures are increasing the frequency of “false springs,” which spur earlier vegetation green-up before the threat has passed of frigid temperatures that can wipe out young, vulnerable plants.

Météo-France, the country’s weather forecasting agency, tweeted that France had its coldest April morning on record Monday (dating to 1947), with national minimum temperatures of 29.3 degrees (minus-1.5 Celsius). In the mountains, it was as cold as minus-6.7 degrees (minus-21.5 Celsius), an April record.

Guillaume Séchet, a French meteorologist, tweeted that April 1 to 3 were the coldest first three days of April in the country since at least 1930.

Maximiliano Herrera, a climatologist who tracks international weather extremes, tweeted that freezing temperatures and record cold also were observed in Germany, Spain and Austria.

Weather maps showed a sprawling region of unseasonably cold conditions from Portugal to western Russia. The biggest temperature differences from normal were centered between Spain and Germany, with France hit hardest.

Warm winter conditions probably made crops more vulnerable to frost. In Germany, winter was warmer than normal and recorded nearly 20 more frost-free days than in an average year. According to the European Commission’s monthly crop monitoring bulletin, “Frost tolerance is rather weak, making crops susceptible to freezing temperatures” in Germany.

In France, winter was around 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) above normal from February to mid-March.

Serge Zaka, an expert in climate and agriculture in France, said in a Twitter thread that the recent freezing weather is very damaging.

A second straight false spring in Europe

It’s the second straight year that a harsh cold spell has arrived after an unusually early spring bloom. Last year, parts of Europe experienced their warmest March on record before record cold arrived in early April. Switzerland and Slovenia registered record April low temperatures. Many locations in France and Italy endured their coldest April weather on record.

The April cold snap in 2021 was devastating for French winegrowers, leading to $2.4 billion in damage, according to the Associated Press. Some vineyards lost 80 percent of their grapes.

French vineyards devastated by April frost that followed unusually warm March in 2021

However, the effects of the current cold wave in France may be less severe than in 2021 because of the timing and coverage, Touzard said. This year, the cold spell occurred a few days earlier, and vegetation growth, especially for vines, was less advanced. Many buds are still not open. The cold wave also seems to be less extensive, concentrated mainly in southwestern regions.

He also said winegrowers learned from last year’s devastating freeze. Now they have better monitoring of the frostiest plots, and they pruned their vineyards later and put up more protection. Some French vintners are lighting large candles or using sprinklers to thaw grapevines.

“The fruit tree growers and grape vine growers are … afraid of this kind of damage. It’s starting to be quite regular,” said Guillaume Charrier, also a researcher at INRAE. “It was about four times, maybe in the last five years or so” near the Rhone River in eastern France and near Bourdeaux.

“It’s part of the normal agricultural life to have frost events, but also we have the abnormal warmer winter temperature that increases the vulnerability of plants,” Charrier said.

False springs have caused agricultural damage not only in Europe in recent years, but also in several parts of the United States.

“If those flower buds get hit by frost, they don’t regenerate that spring, and they don’t regenerate for the whole year,” Theresa Crimmins, director of the USA National Phenology Network and a research professor at the University of Arizona, told The Washington Post in December. “There’s been in recent years some really devastating impacts where we’ve had early warmth, followed by frosts and then total loss of crops.”

A false spring in March 2012 was followed by an April freeze that resulted in a half-billion dollars in damage in Michigan. A false spring in 2017 and ensuing early-April frost resulted in $2 billion in economic damage in the Southeast.

Spring of 2012 was earliest on record, too early?

A 2019 study of how spring frost damage to trees may change in Europe as the climate warms found that some sensitive species “will paradoxically experience more frost damage in the future warming climate.”

Cold in Europe, but unusually warm surrounding it

The record-breaking cold in Europe in no way refutes the planet’s long-term warming trend. While it has been frigid in Europe, abnormally mild air has covered much of Asia and large parts of the North Atlantic.

Herrera tweeted that an “extraordinary heat wave is kicking off in Central Asia.” In Turkmenistan, it was 101.7 degrees (38.7 Celsius) on Monday.

The University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer website indicated that the average Northern Hemisphere temperature was 1.6 degrees (0.9 Celsius) above the 1979-2000 mean Monday.

Some research also shows that climate change may intensify cold waves at certain times and places because of more erratic jet stream behavior, even if winters are globally warmer, although the notion is debated in the scientific community.

Climate change may have worsened deadly Texas cold wave, new study suggests

Unseasonably cold weather and the threat of frost will continue through midweek in southern France before temperatures moderate.