Arctic warmer than much of Europe is a worrying sign of climate change

As frigid air sweeps across Europe, the Arctic itself is seeing an unprecedented warm spell. What's going on and does it relate to global warming?

"Freezing cold 'Siberian Express' is roaring towards Britain," screamed the front page of the Daily Express newspaper last Friday as a cold front, the so-called "Beast from the East," battered its way west.

Nature and Environment | 27.02.2018

By the weekend, snow and temperatures of minus 5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit) had hit Britain, while cities like Rome in southern Italy had transformed into a winter wonderland. This came soon after Moscow experienced a record whiteout during the "snowfall of the century."

But the weather situation looked very different high up in the polar ice cap, where it's actually supposed to be freezing cold. In northernmost Greenland, it was 6 degrees Celsius above zero on Sunday. And it's consistently been above zero for the last fortnight. Arctic sea ice has also been retreating at record rates.

Rome blanketed in heavy snow

Snowball fight on St.Peter's Square

In St. Peter's Square, priests and seminarians from the Vatican threw snowballs at each other. Rome rarely sees snow, but when it does, public transport grinds to a near halt. Rome's Mayor Virginia Raggi even ordered public schools closed, and many private ones followed suit.

Rome blanketed in heavy snow

Italy's most visited tourist hotspot closed

The Colosseum was shut along with the nearby Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill, while authorities urged people to stay at home as much as possible.

Rome blanketed in heavy snow

Staying at home? By no means!

Of course, these kids did not follow these instructions, but took their chances and went to play in the snowy parks of the city.

Rome blanketed in heavy snow

White surprise

Rome's Mediterranean climate usually results in mild winters. On this account restaurants often keep outdoor seating open even through the coldest months of the year.

Rome blanketed in heavy snow

Circo Massimo covered in snow

Roman parks that usually stay green through winter were blanketed with snow, and even the Circo Massimo became a hotspot for snowball fights, while Piazza Navona, with its famed Bernini fountains, turned into a snow-dusted winter wonderland.

Rome blanketed in heavy snow

Not used to dealing with snow

The city, which is not equipped to deal with snow emergencies due to their rarity, asked other areas to send in snow ploughs to help clear roads. Rome’s major airport Fiumicino, was forced to operate with only one runway during the night, when 10 cm (4 inches) of snow fell in less than four hours.

Arctic meltdown

"It's really quite remarkable for February, when it's dark permanently," said Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist for the Danish Meteorological Institute, which has been mapping average temperatures in the far northern Arctic.

Nature and Environment | 16.02.2018

"It's never been this high at this time of year," Mottram told DW. "It's never been this warm. It's really, really unprecedented, I would say."

Over the pole from Europe, nearly a third of the ice covering the Bering Sea to the west of Alaska has also disappeared. But this was no gradual process; the ice retreated over an astonishing eight days in mid-February, according to a report by Inside Climate News.

At a time when sea ice is supposed to be experiencing peak winter growth, coverage in the Bering Sea is now 60 percent below its 1981 to 2010 average.

Climate experts expressed shock at the level of Arctic warming. Robert Rohde, lead scientist at Berkeley Earth, a climate science consultancy in California, graphically illustrated the far northern temperature spike on social media.

"Wacky weather continues with scary strength and persistence," Lars Kaleschke, professor for sea ice remote sensing at the University of Hamburg, wrote in a tweet. He added that he hadn't seen such temperatures in his 25 years of research.

Weakening polar vortex due to climate change

But what's causing the freakish Arctic warmth? And how does this relate with the European freeze? 

The predominant theory revolves around a weakening of the so-called polar vortex — that is, the mass of freezing air held together above the Arctic during winter. That is also regulated by the jet stream — which itself has become irregular, due likely at least in part to climate change.

Read moreUnderstanding the polar vortex

"High-pressure systems over Greenland and the European continent are funneling warmer, lower pressure air northward, toward the North Pole," Kathryn Adamson, Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography, Manchester Metropolitan University, explained to DW.

This is causing the polar vortex to break up and split, the result being a mass of cold air moving south to Europe and North America.

But such "intrusion events" are happening with increasing frequency, says Adamson. And they "are linked to increased temperatures and reduced sea ice cover."

Global warming may be to blame.

"There is now a large and strong body of evidence that the major changes we are seeing are linked to climate change," Adamson said. "Changes in one part of the ocean-atmosphere system can have major impacts on another."

Mottram agrees. While the polar vortex split is to some extent a normal weather event, the recent storms bringing warming air up the east and west Greenland coast "are being pumped up, probably by climate change," she said.

The warmer atmosphere is ultimately contributing to the increased frequency of these storms, and to the consistent weakening of the polar vortex.

Broad-reaching impacts

Due to the extraordinary warmth, current sea ice cover in the Arctic is at its lowest level on record for this time of year.

Ruth Mottram says unprecedented Arctic temperatures are related to climate change

Furthermore, there is open water north of Greenland where old, thick ice once stood. "This is extraordinary, it very very rarely happens," says Mottran.  

Last August, Adamson wrote about the largest ever wildfire in Greenland, an event she partly attributed to climate change. Since 80 percent of Greenland is covered in ice, it also helps to moderate global temperatures by reflecting the sun's radiation.

As the Arctic warms at twice the rate as the rest of the planet, permafrost has also been thawing — which could unleash a feedback loop.

Newly exposed and dried out peat and biomass from thawed permafrost releases a large amount of climate change-inducing carbon, especially when it starts to to burn.

Read moreWhy is the Arctic melting faster than the Antarctic?

This is one of numerous consequences around a warming Arctic. Shrinking sea ice also results in the loss of habitat and prey for animals like polar bears and seals. 

Read more: Climate change making polar bears go hungry, study shows

Many also fear that less ice will leave the North Pole vulnerable to increased shipping, and therefore more mining and fishing.

With the circulation and weather patterns in the Arctic "going almost backwards," according to Mottram, it's a compelling — albeit worrying — time for researchers on the frontline of climate change.

"It's very interesting being an Arctic scientist at the moment," she says. "But sometimes you really wish it would be a little more boring." 

Winter-white animals under threat from global warming

Northern extremes

Camouflage is a key survival strategy for many animals. But what do you do if your habitat changes dramatically with the seasons? From high mountain habitats to the Arctic north, animals have developed a seasonal wardrobe to stay under cover — and stay alive.

Winter-white animals under threat from global warming

Creatures great and small

There are 21 species of animals around the world that transform from brown in the summer to snowy white in the winter to blend in with their surroundings — from tiny prey animals like the Siberian lemming to the noble Peary caribou, which takes on a shaggy white coat in winter.

Winter-white animals under threat from global warming

Overdressed

But habitats with extreme seasons are among the most vulnerable to climate change. Winters are arriving later, and snow melting earlier. And animals like this snowshoe hare are being caught out in the wrong look for the season.

Winter-white animals under threat from global warming

A warmer world

A new study published on Thursday in the journal Science found that the showshoe hare, shown here in its summer colors, is already suffering. Population numbers are falling as white winter coats highlight them against snowless ground, making them easy pickings for predators.

Winter-white animals under threat from global warming

Exposed

Biologist L.Scott Mills and his team have yet to extend their study to other species, but animals like this ptarmigan — a member of the grouse family of gamebirds — could be at risk too. Living in the Eurasian Arctic and subarctic, and high mountain habitats from the Pyrenees to Japan, its habitat is changing fast.

Winter-white animals under threat from global warming

Dressed to kill

Hunters suffer too. The artic fox changes color to blend in with its habitat and sneak up on prey. But it isn't a top predator. Eagles have a taste for fox meat, and a bright white coat can make them an easy target for the keen-eyed birds.

Winter-white animals under threat from global warming

Evolutionary rescue

But there is hope. Animals like the weasel — another critter that makes use of camouflage as both predator and prey — only turns white at high altitudes or in extremely northern territories.

Winter-white animals under threat from global warming

All-weather gear

Their cousins in warmer parts of world — like southern Europe — keep their brown coats all year. The difference is down to genetics. And that's why there's hope that evolution could work in their favor.

Winter-white animals under threat from global warming

Family to the rescue

In areas where the two genetic strains overlap, the scientists hope interbreeding will see the animals adapt to a warmer future. But they warn that "evolutionary rescue" will not be enough to ensure their survival. As always, the real solution is to slow climate change.

Winter-white animals under threat from global warming

Cut the carbon

"Ultimately, the world must reduce carbon dioxide emissions or else the climate effects will overwhelm the ability of many species to adapt," Eugenia Bragina, one of the scientists behind the study, said.