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Europe has second mildest winter on record — climate monitor

March 9, 2023

Scientists say Europe is emerging from its second-warmest winter on record, as climate change intensifies. While the mild weather has proved welcome amid energy shortages, it spells trouble for farming, flora, and fauna.

Hikers walk past a stopped chairlift at Le Semnoz ski resort, near Annecy
The mild weather meant that some ski resorts had to be closed down for a lack of snowImage: Jeff Pachioud/AFP

Europe has had its second-warmest recorded winter, European Union scientists said on Wednesday, with above-average temperatures over eastern Europe and parts of north-eastern Europe.

While the unusually mild winter offered some short-term relief amid high gas prices after Russia slashed fuel deliveries to Europe, the high temperatures attributed to man-made climate change pose a risk to wildlife and agriculture.

What the weather study said

Data published by the EU's Copernicus Climate Change Service showed the average temperature in Europe from December to February was 1.4 degrees Celsius above the 1991-2020 average for the northern hemisphere.

That makes it Europe's joint-second warmest winter on record, with only the winter of 2019-2020 proving even milder.

February saw "much above-average temperatures over eastern Europe and parts of north-eastern Europe," the Copernicus report said. Those high temperatures followed a severe winter heatwave in late December and early January. Record-high winter temperatures hit countries from France to Hungary and meant ski resorts had to be shuttered because of a lack of snow.

Warm weather leaves ski resorts short on snow

The Copernicus researchers previously reported that the summer of 2022 was the hottest in Europe since their records began. Scientists link Europe's warmer periods over the long term to human-caused climate change.

Danger to plants and animals

To some extent, the milder weather has been welcome, with European countries having feared they might run out of natural gas used to heat homes this winter in light of Russia switching off gas supplies to the continent.

However, milder winters can have an impact on farming and habitats as temperature spikes can cause plants to start growing prematurely or coax animals out of hibernation early. That makes them vulnerable to being killed off by cold snaps later in the season.

The Reuters news agency cited Tilly Collins, deputy director of Imperial College London's Centre for Environmental Policy, as saying plants and animals were struggling to move habitats to maintain their ideal temperature because of climate change.

"For species with small populations or restricted ranges this can easily tip them on a path to extinction," Collins said.

Alarm in Antarctica

The Copernicus report also highlighted other climate-linked extremes, including a drop in Antarctic sea ice extent to its lowest February level since satellite data records began almost half a century ago.

"Our latest data show that Antarctic sea ice reached its lowest extent in the 45-year satellite data record. These low sea ice conditions may have important implications for the stability of Antarctic ice shelves and ultimately for global sea level rise."

"Polar ice caps are a sensitive indicator of the climate crisis and it is important to closely monitor the changes occurring there," said Copernicus Deputy Director Samantha Burgess.

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Edited by: John Silk

Richard Connor Reporting on stories from around the world, with a particular focus on Europe — especially Germany.