By Rowan Sylva
Early November in Berlin, and winter is indeed coming, causing the thermometer on our window to plunge below ten degrees. With each passing day the sun hangs lower in the sky giving a perpetual sense of evening. The wild geese swarm south, the swallows are no longer seen, but the flocks of crows become more visible and more vocal. The trees turn gold and red and shed their leaves into the streams which clog with Autumn’s debris. And one can almost hear the howling of wolves in the blood-red forests of Brandenburg. People also prepare. A man on the street puts winter tires on his car, the neighbours stock up on coal and we fill our cellar with wood scavenged from the forest to heat our nineteenth century flat. The pot of mulled wine sits slowly heating on the wood stove.
A new study, using comprehensive computer modelling demonstrates, that global warming doubles the probability of severe winters in Europe. The Arctic warms at a faster rate then the rest of the world, and freezing air is pushed south, over Eurasia. This, combined with a possible slowing of the Gulf Steam, is a recipe for the kind of Arctic weather that caused the great lakes to freeze, and it to snow in Florida, as temperatures fell to as low -38 Celsius in parts of the USA last winter. The phenomenon of severe winters is claimed by the authors of the study to be temporary (a couple of decades) before overall warming changes the climatic model.
Whether or not the coming European winter will be severe, or even below average temperature, is open to speculation, however, analysis of early snow fall in Siberia provides an indication that 2014/15 could be bitterly cold. And if it is severe it could initiate a political and humanitarian crisis in Europe, as the continent’s “new cold war” gets even colder. America’s severe winter cost the economy around five billion dollars, and similar damage could be inflicted on Europe, but it is the situation in Ukraine that should cause the most concern.
A friend of mine recently returned from Ukraine, where he was visiting his girlfriend’s family, and described the situation there as dire. Cut off from Russian gas supplies, Ukrainians have no hot water and no central heating. On top of this people are being drafted to fight the Russians in the east after completing a measly three months military training – a veritable death sentence. The bankrupt government is unable to pay its civil servants and it is cheeper to drive to Poland and back to buy medicine then to purchase it in Kiev. If this sounds bad it is nothing to the effect a severe winter would have on a population cut off from its primary heating resource – gas. General Frost may once again prove to be Russia’s greatest military asset.
If a severe winter strikes, western Europe and Kiev must come to an agreement with the Russians to prevent the potential mass deaths, as western Europe lacks both the infrastructure and the reserves to supply Ukraine with its heating needs. This problem would be exacerbated by skyrocketing demand for heating in western Europe itself, and associated spiking gas prices. If, and it’s a big if, a severe winter strikes, it has the possibility to draw Europe closer together and indeed to create peace, or it could tear it irrevocably apart.