Europe to experience decades of artic winters?

While governments plan a long term strategy to cope with climate change the return of a real winter in Europe, particularly the North, has left public services struggling to cope. Airports at Chambery, Grenoble and Lyon were unable to run normal schedules with some winter sports enthusiasts diverted to Milan or left waiting three days to get a flight.

Photo - Luc Thollet

France’s TGV network and Eurostar have run erratic services as the prestigious 320km/h high speed trains have broken down in the subzero temperatures. The regional rail network has been almost non-existent at times due to “the wrong kind of snow”. Bus services in the alpine towns of Annecy and Grenoble have both been cancelled and the Grenoble tram network ran 24 hour services in an effort to stop the rails freezing up.

It has not even been particularly cheerful in ski resorts. Poor weather over Christmas left mid-mountain resorts without snow cover and kept skiers in bars and restaurants with a knock on effect on ski hire and lift pass sales. The late, but ample snow has led to increased avalanche activity and a number of high profile accidents. In the UK the cold weather is said to be responsible for at least 26 deaths.

So is this artic weather just a speed hump on the road to global warming?

Dr Mojib Latif, a climate physicist at the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Kiel in Germany thinks that the North Atlantic area follows climate fluctuations that operate over periods of 20 to 30 years known as multi-decadal oscillations or MDOs. He believes that between 10-50% of the warming we’ve seen since 1980 has been part of a natural cycle that is now set to change. Latif is no foaming at the mouth climate change denier. At the IPCC conference last September he warmed scientists that this cooling would be seized on by skeptics to disprove man made global warming.

snow levels col de port
The CEN’s trend line paints a bleak picture

This work is echoed by Professor Anastasios Tsonis who is head of the University of Wisconsin’s Atmospheric Sciences Group. Tsonis believes that MDOs are synchronized across the globe and flip climate from warm to cold cycles. Readers may remember predictions of a new ice age at the end of the last cold cycle in the mid 1970s.

snow levels col de port
But looked at another way

So do any observations from the Alps back up the MDO theory? If you look at the graphs put out by the Centre des Etudes de la Neige, part of Meteo France, they show trend lines firmly heading south with a claimed loss of 21cm of snow depth per year for a site such as the Col de Porte at 1325 meters altitude.

temperatures col de port
maybe we’ve turned a corner

Is a linear trend line the best way of analyzing fluctuating data? We re-crunched the figures for temperature and snow depths for the Col de Porte and the weather station at Mont Aigoual (1567 meters) using a polynomial trend line. They show a cyclic pattern to weather which clearly fits the theory of a 60 year cycle. On this basis we can expect perhaps another 15 years of cooling temperatures.

mt aigoual snow depths
A century of climate change at Mt Aigoual

Will there be snow tomorrow?

After a decade of poor to average winters following the failure of the snows from 1989-1991 skiers were depressed and wondering just how long they would be able to practice their favourite sport. Local government began to question the subsidies given to ski areas. In the Isere a report by the consulting group Dianeige suggested closing most of the department’s low level ski resorts. In the Haute-Savoie the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) predicted that twenty ski resorts will have to close.

snow levels col de port
The ebb and flow of alpine glaciers

The tiny ski resort of le Sappey on Chartreuse offers another clue to climate cycles. Situated at just 1050 meters altitude in the Northern French Alps this resort is not equipped with snow canons and is on the front line of global warming. In the 1960s it used to average 55 opening days, this dropped to just 20 in the winters from 1988 to 2001 but since then the figure has been 35. Glaciers are slow to react to climate change but measurements on the fronts of a number of alpine glaciers show similar variations. A steady retreat since the end of the little ice-age interspersed by periods of advance. Taking a medium term view maybe the decision by the American Woody Sherwood to finance the reopening the Haute-Savoyard ski resort of Abondance doesn’t look so foolish.

Further Information

Posted by davidof on Wednesday, 13 January, 2010 at 11:03 PM

For a great explanation on why temperatures may be cooling in Europe, I recommend the book, The Winds of Change, by Eugene Linden. Cooling for the northern Alps and New England, USA is a feature of global warming: too much fresh water in the ocean currents (due primarily to melting ice) and not as much salt (changing the density of the water) turns off the Global Ocean Conveyor Belt, also known as the Gulf Stream. This results in a Little Ice Age, which has occurred numerous times in the past. The Gulf Stream, as we speak, is already ominously slowing down.

Posted by  on  Wednesday, 20 January, 2010  at 12:01 AM

Just to answer some emails received on this story (and feel free to comment below). The idea was to show that you can look at the same data in different ways. Meteo France’s see’s a linear trend downwards but you could just as easily see a cyclical pattern and some scientists support this particular view. However, as with stock markets, be wary about how you analyse your data.

Posted by davidof on  Thursday, 28 January, 2010  at 12:35 PM
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