Freezing conditions across Europe has caused transport disruption, panic buying and an increase in the death rate due to the extremely low temperatures and heavy snowfall. After an unusually mild start to the winter in Europe, the weather situation changed abruptly in the middle of January. The severe temperatures are not record breaking but the extent of the cold area, its relatively late onset and the persistence over a period of weeks, are of interest if not exceptional.
A huge expanse of high pressure sprawls from the UK in the west right across to eastern parts of Russia and the flow around this stubborn high has been transporting Siberian air across most of Europe. This Siberian high pressure system is preventing the milder, wet and windy weather from moving in from the Atlantic Ocean and setting up a battle ground between warm and cold air that brought heavy snowfall across the UK at the weekend. Snowfall has also affected parts of south east Europe and Northern Africa as the cold air bumps up against milder, moist air in the Mediterranean.
Parts of eastern European have experienced temperatures as low as -30°C and across northern Russia the temperature plummeted to -37°C. In Italy, snow-covered Rome was virtually paralysed with thousands of people trapped on trains and panic buying in supermarkets. The canals in Venice started to freeze over and ice-breakers battled to keep the Danube River open as more than 100 mile stretch became frozen. In Serbia, around 70,000 people were cut off in snowed-in villages, with police and military units providing basic necessities.
In the UK, snow caused traffic disruption on the motorways with both the M25 and M40 seeing more than 100 vehicles left stranded between 9pm on Saturday and the early hours of Sunday morning. Former England football captain, Gary Lineker, was among those caught in tailbacks as he drove home from filming Saturday night's Match Of The Day. Flights were cancelled at Heathrow with only half of the 1,300 scheduled flights taking off. Stansted, Birmingham, Luton and Manchester airports were forced to suspend operations for a period on Saturday night as snow piled up on the runways, and Gatwick said the airport was not experiencing "any major delays" and had had to cancel only nine flights. Church Fenton in North Yorkshire and Wattisham in Suffolk recorded 16cm of snow, while up to 15cm was forecast for parts of Cumbria, Lincolnshire, East Anglia, North Yorkshire, the Peak District and the Midlands. The cold spell has seen temperatures to -11°C overnight with even daytime temperatures five degrees lower than average for February.
This high pressure area is made up of very cold, dense air that doesn't want to move and leads to a blocking system and persistent freezing conditions. A similar high pressure blocking system was also responsible for the more significant cold winter of 2009/2010, when cold conditions started in mid December and continued over most of January and February.
Part of the explanation is the so-called Arctic Oscillation which refers to the difference in pressure patterns from north to south. At the moment there is a negative Arctic Oscillation, which leads to cold conditions in Europe and relatively warmer conditions in the Arctic. It is not unusual to have a negative Arctic Oscillation and to see an area of high pressure building over continental Europe during the winter months, in fact we have experienced this on several occasions over recent decades. That doesn't make it any easier to deal with when it comes.