Record-breaking winter temperatures warm Europe

Europe has seen "extreme" warm winter weather in recent days, experts have said, with 2023 already posting record temperatures for January across the region.

Record-breaking winter temperatures warm Europe
A hiker walks past a stopped chairlift at Le Semnoz ski resort, near Annecy on 27th December 2022, as the resort had to close temporarily due to the lack of snow. Photo by JEFF PACHOUD / AFP

As temperatures rise globally because of human-caused climate change, scientists say heatwaves and spells of warmer-than-average weather are becoming more common throughout the year.

After experiencing searing summer heat and a drought unprecedented in centuries, a wave of warm weather across Europe this winter has melted the snow from ski slopes in the Alps and Pyrenees, and seen temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) even in normally-freezing central

Several European countries saw record-breaking heat on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Hundreds of weather stations across Europe have recorded all-time highest daily temperatures for the months of December or January, it said this week.

Freja Vamborg, Senior Scientist at Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), said the current winter heatwave is an “extreme” heat event in Europe in terms of how far temperatures have deviated from what is expected at this time of year.   

Here Vamborg answers some key questions about the heatwave:

What caused these high temperatures?

“On the 1st of January there was a strong flow of air from the southwest across the affected area, which would have brought warmer air further north and penetrated unusually far east, reaching even to Belarus. Minimal snow cover was very probably another relevant factor.”

“The circulation of any given weather situation and climate change are not two independent things. Climate change itself also has an impact on the circulation, and will also impact how warm those moving air masses are. This is what makes it so complex to disentangle just simply a weather event, from
the level to which climate change influenced such an event.”

How is climate change involved?

“With increasing global temperatures, heatwaves and warm spells are becoming more frequent and intense — this is not restricted to the summer months.”

“While the warming trend in Europe is on average stronger in the warmer seasons, winters are also becoming warmer as a result of global temperatures.”

“Northern Europe has warmed more strongly in winter than in summer, while in the south the warming trend is more apparent in summer.”

What is the impact of these high winter temperatures?

“A couple of things can be mentioned for warm temperatures during the winter months. While it means less need for heating of housing and other infrastructures, low snow cover affects the winter tourism industry.”

“Possible impacts on natural ecosystems, include early return from hibernation, which may have negative impacts if followed by much less mild/freezing conditions.”

“The overall impact will be different depending on the longevity and intensity of the event.”

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Why Denmark’s extra grey January can cause winter blues

Denmark has seen considerably greyer and wetter weather this January than is average for the month. Experts have offered advice on how to deal with the darker seasons.

Why Denmark’s extra grey January can cause winter blues

Windy, grey and rainy weather have made this January a dull one so far, according to DR’s meteorologist Thomas Kaa Mørk in an article on the broadcaster’s website.

“Until Tuesday this week, 107.6 millimetres of rain have fallen [in January]. That’s the third-largest amount in January since records began in 1874,” Mørk told DR.

Additionally, this month has so far seen 17.3 hours of sunshine. The normal total for January is 52 hours, so with 11 days of the month remaining it looks like the average will not be reached.

A chronic lack of sunshine can make the first month of the year begin to feel interminable, professor of photonics at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), Paul Michael Petersen, told DR. Petersen researches the effect of light on human health.

“Having a healthy life is dependent on the light in our surroundings. At the same time, unhealthy light can have a large negative consequence for people,” he said.

“The problem in Denmark is that there’s simply not enough light, and the light we do have doesn’t really have the right colours to make us well-functioning,” he told DR.

“This was useful in the past because when it was dark, there was no reason to spend a lot of energy finding food, because it was hard to find. But today it’s not very useful to be partly in hibernation when you arrive at work,” he said.

“The best thing you can do to compensate for the lack of light in January is to be outside a lot during daytime especially in the morning and afternoon,” he said.

Feeling lower on energy in winter compared to summer is not solely due to the light, though, another expert told DR.

“The days are short and you might have less mental energy to do the things that are good for your mental health. But it’s important not to just go home after work and sit down and slump,” researcher Charlotte Bjerre Meilstrup, who leads the project ABC for mental sundhed (mental health) at the University of Copenhagen’s Institute for Psychology, said to DR.

The project has three specific pieces of advice that can be applied at times when the winter month of January really feels like it’s dragging, she said.

“Do something active – this could be something physically active, but it could also be mental. Read a book or solve a sudoku,” she said to DR.

Being active with others, limiting isolation, is also important at a time of year when there are fewer public events going on.

“Do something together – being part of a community or something for other people has a huge impact on mental wellbeing,” she said.

Finally, the mental health expert advised doing “something meaningful – and remember that what is meaningful for others is not necessarily meaningful for you”.