Loss of Arctic sea ice can spoil French wine harvest

The Finnish Meteorological Institute’s observation station used in the study, Pallas National Park, Arctic Finland. Image: Courtesy of Jeff Welker

What happens in the Arctic may not stay there. Loss of Arctic sea ice can dump the polar blizzards elsewhere.

LONDON, 19 April, 2021 − Once again, scientists have linked a weather-related catastrophe directly to human-induced climate change. Extreme frost and springtime snowfalls in Western Europe can be pinned to the dramatic loss of Arctic sea ice.

So, paradoxically, global heating may have had the unexpected effect of wiping out around one third of the French wine harvest for this coming year, after temperatures so low that growers were forced to light bonfires in their vineyards to save the first buds from the chill.

“Climate change doesn’t always manifest in the most obvious ways,” said Alun Hubbard, of the Arctic University of Norway. “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 be beware of making broad, sweeping statements about the impacts of climate change.”

Professor Hubbard and colleagues report in the journal Nature Geoscience that they measured telltale isotope signatures in water vapour from Finland in February 2018 during an episode of freezing snow in Europe, in an anticyclone dubbed “the Beast from the East” by meteorologists and the media.

“The abrupt changes being witnessed across the Arctic now really are affecting the entire planet”

They found that the Barents Sea north of Scandinavia was anomalously warm. And 60% of the sea’s surface was free of ice, and the same sea lost 140 billion tonnes of water to evaporation during this too-warm February. This enormous atmospheric burden of water vapour provided, they calculate, 88% of the snow that was to fall over northern Europe that month.

Then they looked at the pattern over the years from 1979 to 2020, to find that, for every square metre of ice that vanished in the month of March − itself part of a pattern of Arctic temperature rise − evaporation across the Barents Sea increased by 70 kg, and this could be matched with increases in Europe’s maximum snowfall.

“Our analysis directly links Arctic sea ice loss with increased evaporation and extreme snow fall,” they write, and warn that by 2080 an ice-free Barents Sea “will be a major source of winter moisture for continental Europe.”

The Beast from the East brought much of Europe to a halt, at an economic cost of an estimated $1bn (£0.72bn) a day. It is still rare for researchers to directly link any particular weather event with climate change driven by profligate use of fossil fuels − that is because climate is what forecasters can reasonably expect, but weather is what actually happens − but some scientists have begun to do so with increasing confidence. And this time, they can explain why.

Natural complexity

The ice cover over the Barents Sea has fallen by 54% since 1979, at the rate of 11,200 sq kms a year, and snow mass across Eurasia has increased. The latest study confirms the link: the isotope signature of Barents water was repeated in the European snows that arrived with the Beast from the East.

“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 extremely heavy snowfalls,” said Hannah Bailey of the University of Oulu in Finland, who led the research.

“It might seem counter-intuitive, but nature is complex and what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.”

And Professor Hubbard said: “This study illustrates that the abrupt changes being witnessed across the Arctic now really are affecting the entire planet.” − Climate News Network