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Ice-free parts of Arctic are driving extreme snowfall in Europe

A new study from UiT The Arctic University of Norway has revealed that the loss of the Arctic sea ice has triggered more extreme snowfall further south across Europe.

In France, an above-average warm spell at the end of March was followed by days of extreme frost. French winemakers lit thousands of small fires to save their vines, but this year’s losses are still expected to be 90 percent above average. 

The natural disaster, which has impacted vineyards from Bordeaux to Champagne, illustrates the unpredictability of global warming.

“Climate change doesn’t always manifest in the most obvious ways,” said study co-author Professor Alun Hubbard. “It’s easy to extrapolate models to show that winters are getting warmer and to forecast a virtually snow-free future in Europe, but our most recent study shows that is too simplistic. We should beware of making broad sweeping statements about the impacts of climate change.” 

The UiT study, led by Dr. Hanna Bailey at the University of Oulu, has uncovered a climatic paradox. The experts report that a massive 50 percent reduction in Arctic sea ice cover has increased open-water and winter evaporation, triggering more extreme snowfall to the south.

In particular, the researchers found that long-term decline of Arctic sea ice since the late 1970s had a direct connection to a 2018 winter storm known as the “Beast from the East.” Large parts of the European continent were impacted, and extreme snowfall caused an estimated £1bn a day in losses.

According to the findings, atmospheric vapor traveling south from the Arctic carried a unique geochemical fingerprint, revealing that its source was the warm, open-water surface of the Barents Sea region of the Arctic Ocean. 

The study revealed that open-water conditions in the Barents Sea supplied up to 88 percent of the fresh snow that fell over Europe during the 2018 storm.

“What we’re finding is that sea-ice is effectively a lid on the ocean. And with its long-term reduction across the Arctic, we’re seeing increasing amounts of moisture enter the atmosphere during winter, which directly impacts our weather further south, causing extreme heavy snowfalls,” said Dr. Bailey. “It might seem counter-intuitive, but nature is complex and what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”

The analysis of long-term trends since 1979 showed that for every square meter of winter sea-ice lost from the Barents Sea, there was a corresponding 70 kg increase in the evaporation, moisture, and snow falling over Europe.

It is predicted that the Barents Sea will likely become ice-free within the next six decades. The lack of sea ice could become a significant driver of increased winter precipitation in Europe.

“This study illustrates that the abrupt changes being witnessed across the Arctic now, really are affecting the entire planet.” said Professor Hubbard.

The study is published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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