Moscow is usually blanketed in snow for four to five months a year. But this year, Russia’s capital had barely any snow cover in the whole of February, described by local meteorologists as a “once in a century” occurrence.
This winter in Russia was the hottest ever in the 140-year history of meteorological observations, beating the previous temperature record from the winter of 2015-2016 by 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.3 degrees Fahrenheit), state-run Hydrometeorological Center of Russia reported Thursday.
Moscow was even warmer, compared to normal, reporting a staggering 7.5 degrees Celsius (13.5 degrees Fahrenheit) above average and setting 11 all-time daily temperature records along the way.
“These are whopping numbers,” Elena Volosyuk, a meteorologist with the Fobos government-licensed weather center told CNN. “The trend continues into spring as March is starting with +7-8 degrees Celsius above average, so essentially our actual weather is ahead of the calendar by almost a month.”
In meteorology, winter runs from the first of December to the end of February.
“What’s striking is that abnormally high temperatures of +5-10 degrees Celsius, and in some places even +15-18 degrees Celsius above the norm, were recorded not only in the European part of our country but also east of the Ural mountains, including northern Siberia and Yakutia,” Volosyuk said.
Most of Moscow was snow-free by the end of last month, and the maximum snow depth that the Fobos center recorded this winter was just 10-11 centimeters (4 inches). That is 7 centimeters (2.7 inches) below any other year’s maximum snow depth.
City authorities even had to resort to dispatching trucks of artificial snow from local ice rinks to Moscow streets for the New Year celebrations. Videos and photos of the deliveries went viral as users joked about bringing snow into a city which usually struggles to remove it from the roads.
“I don’t even remember a winter like this, if one can call it that,” said Valentina Vasilevich, a pensioner who ice skates in Moscow’s Gorky Park every season. “Some mornings it was quite disappointing to get to the rink and see wet mush instead of clean ice because it was so warm in December and January.”
Gorky Park, much like all of Moscow, goes all out on winter-themed decorations. This year, however, giant polar bears and Christmas ornaments appeared stranded on snow-free pavements. The park’s press service said in an email that it could keep the rink up on days below 10 degrees Celsius but admitted that the combination of above zero degrees and rain had disrupted the skating sessions.
The unusually hot winter may have brought Russians one silver lining. The ministry responsible for housing said Monday it will lower utility bills for residents in areas where the heating season was cut short by the warmer temperatures.
Hottest winter across Europe
It wasn’t just Russia. The whole Europe experienced its warmest winter season since records began in 1855, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, the European Union’s Earth observing program.
“With persistent mild weather over Europe, particularly in the north and east, the past winter was 3.4 °C (6 °F) warmer than the average winter for the period 1981-2010,” Copernicus said on Wednesday.
Copernicus said the extreme temperatures experienced this winter are likely due to the climate crisis.
“Whilst this was a truly extreme event in its own right, it is likely that these sorts of events have been made more extreme by the global warming trend,” according to Carlo Buontempo, Director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service.
This winter also featured abnormally low pressure over the North Pole, which allowed the polar vortex (a band of strong winds high in the atmosphere that circle the northern arctic region) to be extremely strong. This is called the “positive phase” of a large-scale weather pattern known as the Arctic Oscillation.
During the winter of 2019-20, the Arctic Oscillation reached its strongest value ever recorded, according to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center in the US.
When the polar vortex is strong, it keeps the cold Arctic air bottled up in polar regions, allowing the middle latitudes to warm up.
If, on the other hand, the Arctic Oscillation is in a negative phase, the polar vortex weakens and cold air spills out from the Arctic and invades portions of Europe, Asia and North America. This was the case during several notable cold air outbreaks in recent years such as the “Beast from the East” that struck much of Europe in early 2018.
The trend seems to have affected Russia’s coldest regions, too.
“Obviously, they’ve experienced frost on some days but if we are talking about Taymyr or Yakutia, -15-20 (degrees Celsius) in winter is very warm,” Volosyuk said. “Given that it’s -35-40 (degrees Celsius) normally, it’s the same as a thaw for the residents of the European Russia.”
Russia’s Arctic has been ravaged by forest fires in the summer, while its foundation is literally melting away. Two thirds of the country sit on permafrost, which is degrading rapidly, puncturing places like the Yakutia region with giant sinkholes, and the speed of its melting has long worried scientists worldwide as it could further accelerate the climate change.
Large amounts of methane and carbon are tied up in the permafrost and if it melts, these greenhouse gasses will escape into the atmosphere.
Russia’s response to the crisis has so far been mixed. President Vladimir Putin, who doubted climate change in the past, has moved to acknowledge its potentially devastating effects on the country’s infrastructure.
In December he said in his annual press conference that Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the average for the planet. But he also cast doubt on the man-made origins of global warming, suggesting it could be changing because of “processes in the universe.”
Russia, the world’s fourth-biggest greenhouse gas emitter, has also joined the Paris climate agreement. However, the proposed legislation to impose carbon emission quotas on Russia’s largest companies and penalties for the biggest polluters was quashed last fall after industry pushback.
Mary Ilyushina reported from Moscow and Brandon Miller wrote in Atlanta, Georgia.