Old Man Winter: Delight and Demise [Part 2]
Here it is, part two of my winter writings. This post moves on from my tribute to our coldest season and instead deals with the uncomfortable truth that Old Man Winter is not as strong as he once was, far from it. Anthropogenic climate change has dealt him a death blow and slowly but surely we are all having to adapt to a new reality about what winter is and what it used to be.
Ironically, I write this post from freezing Iceland, which is currently in the middle of a spring cold snap. Temperatures today haven’t climbed above -3 C, despite the bright April sunshine, and even the locals have conceded that it is “cool”. Drifting snow buffeted our car as we drove to a nearby hill for a walk this morning, and rivers and streams all around our guesthouse are turning to ice before our eyes.
I’m also heading further north in the coming weeks, to do battle with winter in his boreal stronghold – Greenland. My expedition there will last for five weeks and in that time, the only innate heat sources I will have access to are a stove and my body. But, if anything, the imminence of that trip adds poignancy to this post…a mild winter in east Greenland has meant less sea ice off the coast, which in turn has increased polar bear-human conflict in the area. Normally, the bears are well offshore until mid-summer, hunting seals on the frozen platform the sea-ice provides. This year, unprecedented numbers of bears have strayed into the only town in the region, Ittoqqortoormiit, in search of food. A late-season visit from Old Man Winter, and an expansion of sea-ice cover in the area, would greatly reduce the risk of me encountering one of these apex predators during the next two months. This would be welcome.
But unlike my previous offering, this post isn’t about me, or my relationship with winter. It’s about the impact that winter’s demise will have on the wider world and all its disparate communities. Annoyingly, for most of my readership, the defining memory this year will be of “The Beast from the East”; a three day cold snap that saw some impressively cold air from Russia shifted westwards across Europe all the way to Ireland. En route, it froze the sea between Denmark and Sweden and dumped powdery snow in sub-zero temperatures across the entire east coast of the U.K.
This sort of weather event massively colours perceptions about climate and climate-change. The residing memory for Londoners this year will be of the capital enduring maxima of -3 C in early March and of blowing snow on their city’s streets and pavements. In rural parts of Britain the strong easterly winds and dry nature of the snow allowed massive accumulations to build up in sheltered locations. Some of these drifts persist now, in mid-spring, at astonishingly low altitudes…how can people be expected to reconcile this once-in-a-decade freeze with worries about a warming world? It seems so easy to dismiss climate concerns now with little more than a shrug and muttering “well this winter was pretty cold, wasn’t it?”.
The reality is that cooler-than-average, even cold winters will still be possible as the planet warms. The challenge, however, is to keep a hemispheric or, ideally, global picture in mind at all times. As the Arctic and Antarctic regions warm faster than the rest of the world, the source region for frigid, polar air is diminishing. All other things being equal, this means that the winter hemisphere will have a smaller envelope of cold air covering it than used to be the case, so some regions every winter will be much milder than normal, as they fail to be tap into the ever-shrinking pool of polar air.
Of course, the envelope of cool air isn’t static. The boundary delineating polar cold from sub-tropical warmth is the jet-stream, a high-altitude wind induced by the temperature (and pressure) differential that exists between these two fairly immiscible airmasses. Throughout the year the jet stream moves, flowing and fluctuating around both hemispheres in undulating pulses. In the U.K., we spend our winter months flip-flopping from one side of the jet stream to the other, enduring periods of cloudy, sub-tropical murk interspersed with colder, clear, polar maritime weather. As climate change kicks in, however, two trends in the behaviour of the jet stream are emerging. The first is that the jet stream seems to get stuck in certain ‘set-ups’, or configurations for longer than normal, often resetting throughout the winter to keep specific places stuck in a particular weather pattern. The second is that the jet stream is shifting poleward, giving higher latitude locations more time in the mild, sub-tropical airmasses that we don’t normally associate with winter weather.
Anecdotally, you can probably corroborate this for yourself…many U.K. winters in recent times have been superlative; the “wettest”, “driest”, “mildest” or “stormiest” on record. This is because the jet-stream has been locked onto a certain track for months at a time, delivering weeks on end of the same, or similar types of weather. Likewise, the European Alps’ ski resorts seem to fluctuate between good years and bad years, when the snow either dumps from November to April or doesn’t really fall at all. To me, this dichotomy of boom and bust seems to be the product of entrenched jet stream profiles across Europe (combined with a fairly complex meteorological phenomenon called the ‘Quasi-biennial Oscillation‘). In some years the Alps spend much of the season on the ‘warm’ side of the jet stream, basking in sub-tropical airmasses with little in the way of winter weather. In other years, such as 2018, the jet-stream barrels into central Europe for the entire season, producing snowfall after snowfall in a never ending succession of weather fronts and depressions.
This increasingly entrenched nature of the jet stream may be problematic, but so too is the shrinking availability of cold air, of ‘winter’ itself. It is now extremely unusual to see both the European Alps and North American Rockies enjoy above-average snowfalls in the same season – there simply isn’t enough winter to go around. Instead, like this year, one region makes it into the cold envelope and the other sits outside. Mountain states like Utah saw less than half of their normal snowfall this year, with similarly lean conditions in Colorado and California too.
But the problems caused by a lack of winter extend far beyond the ski resorts of the developed world, which, though important to their countries’ economies, service a fairly privileged demographic. The same synoptic situation that caused Russian cold to be pulled westwards into Europe this February allowed sub-tropical air to be pumped far north into the Arctic. Weather stations in northern Greenland reached highs of +6 C at a time of year when they would normally be chilling 20 to 30 degrees below freezing. Think about that for a second. A comparable anomaly in London would see the city basking in temperatures of +30 C in January. Can you imagine how worried you would be if that came to pass? How serious the manifestation of climate change would suddenly seem? This is the case in the Arctic already. We cannot ignore what is happening there.
At the time of writing, both the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice levels are at their second lowest levels on record. The Bering Sea off Alaska’s west coast saw ice retreat in February, an unprecedented occurrence, which will only exacerbate the current trend of rapidly warming sea surfaces in that part of the world. This warming ocean is already altering the composition of the ecosystem in Alaska, with sea-ice dependent species of plankton in sharp decline, altering food supplies for those animals further up the chain.
A lack of winter cold allows water temperatures all down the Pacific coasts of North American to rise too high in the summer, with devastating toxic algae proliferating as a consequence. This has led to the asphyxiation of sea mammals like otters, dolphins and even whales. But it isn’t just the Pacific that is seeing rapid changes. In Iceland, where I am currently, the local fishermen have been pulling up new species like mackerel in recent years for the first time ever. Normally a temperate fish, the mackerel have been driven north as their prey species follow rising sea temperatures. Further south, in places like Wales and Ireland, the traditional home range of the mackerel, populations are floundering. The result: British fisherman with less to catch, Icelandic fisherman getting into hot water politically and a fundamentally altered ecosystem in both places.
I could go on and on…a lack of winter snowfall leads to summer drought in California. A lack of winter rainfall leads to summer wildfires in southern Europe. A lack of winter frosts leads to pests and disease affecting temperate farmers’ crops and foresters’ trees. A lack of winter sea ice leads to starving polar bears and Inuit hunters with no platform to hunt from. A lack of winter cold leads to the slow collapse of ecosystems finely-tuned to cope with it.
If you live in a big city, it can be hard to relate to global warming. It doesn’t really affect your day-to-day existence and its effects aren’t especially visible or tangible. You might notice the trees blossoming out of season, but you won’t have the snow-line on a mountain or the lack of sea-ice on a fjord to really see and feel the demise of winter.
Our minds and our institutions are geared towards short-term events and recent happenings, hence the emphasis we often place on the latest weather we have experienced. But rather than focussing on our locales, the challenge for us all is to stay abreast of what is happening across the planet, year on year on year, and to make others aware of those changes. Not necessarily with facts or figures, which are hard to empathise with and which can be easily dismissed or forgotten, but viscerally and emotionally, so that we can continue to motivate efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions everywhere.
We need to see that ‘Old Man Winter’ is dying on his feet and continue to acknowledge his sad but inexorable decline.