Image: Alexander Blecher
Many of the ski resorts across Europe had a long wait for any decent snow to arrive, and they are still waiting in most of the ski resorts in the US. It had been the warmest and driest autumn in the Alps for 147 years and an extremely mild autumn across Europe which meant that even by the middle of December many resorts were without snow. This saw the cancellation of the World Cup alpine races as the French resort of Val d'Isere was forced to abandon the event, due to take place on 10th/11th December. A hotel in Austria's Katschberg mountains hired 15 chimney sweepers - which are associated with good luck in the country - to pray for snow.
How quickly things can change – maybe due to the chimney sweepers – by the middle of January thousands of skiers were stranded across Europe after heavy snowfall trapped them in their ski resorts. Parts of Austria, southern German, France and Switzerland saw large amounts of snowfall dumping up to 5.5m (18ft) of snow and blocking roads and railways. The heavy snow increased the likelihood of avalanches, leading to pistes and lifts being closed as well as roads between different parts of ski resorts. In the popular ski resort of Ischgl in Austria a total of 17,000 people were thought to be snowed in. Worst affected was western Austria and southeastern Switzerland, in the heart of the Alps, which has been virtually paralysed by the 'once-in-a-decade' snowstorms.
Large parts of North America continue to suffer their worst dearth of snow in decades as the US 'Winterless Wonderland' costs the country's tourism industry tens of millions of dollars. In Maine and New Hampshire in the northeast, snow has either melted or been washed away. Places like Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, New York which are normally buried in feet of snow at this time of year, had the third-lightest snowfall on record between October and December. Reno recorded its driest December in history, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University in New York.
'It's been 128 years since Reno didn't have snow in December,' said Scott Hickey, owner of a retail golf shop in Reno. 'Not only have we not had snow, but it's been mild so you can play golf.'
The reason for the lack of snow in the US is due to the position of the jet stream which is much further north than normal, with snow storms in Alaska dumping over 4m of snow during December but very little further south. The jet stream typically meanders and shifts its way across the US and Canada and defines the boundary between warm air to the south and cold air to the north. Storms form along this boundary move in the direction of the jet stream like beads on a string. This winter the jet stream has been over Canada for an unusually long time which means warmer air is more dominant across much of the US.
The impact can be dramatic, he explained, with a lack of snow often increasing temperatures by about 5ºC. Snow would normally reflect the warming sunlight back away from the ground, for example, keeping surface temperatures relatively low. Without snow cover, the ground absorbs the sunlight and warms up. Maybe the American ski resorts need to hire in some chimney sweepers to help turn things around.