Warm Arctic seas caused 'Beast from East' snow: study

By: AFP      Published: 08:59 PM, 1 Apr, 2021
Warm Arctic seas caused 'Beast from East' snow: study

Ice free seas in the Arctic contribute directly to more extreme snowfall in Europe, contributing nearly 90 percent of the fresh snow that hit the continent during 2018's infamous "Beast from the East", research showed Thursday.

The extreme weather event, which paralysed much of Northern Europe during February and March 2018 cost an estimated 1.17 billion euros a day in Britain alone.

Now an international team of researchers says that the epic snowfall was a direct result of "anomalously warm" waters in the Barents Sea -- 60 percent of which was ice free in the weeks leading up to the Beast from the East.

As the Arctic warms, the polar vortex -- an area of cold air and low pressure that typifies the poles during cold seasons -- is more likely to be displaced southwards.

"What we're finding is that sea ice is effectively a lid on the ocean," said Hannah Bailey, from the University of Oulu's Ecology and Genetics Research Unit and lead study of the paper published in Nature Geosciences.

"And with its long-term removal across the Arctic since the 1970s, we're seeing increasing amounts of moisture enter the atmosphere during winter, which directly impacts our weather further south, causing extreme heavy snowfalls."

The researchers based in Finland measured atmospheric water vapour isotope levels in real time in the period leading up to 2018's extreme snow fall.

Because vapour from snow melt contains different isotopes to that from open water, the team were able to accurately quantify how much excess moisture the Barents Sea gave off during this time.

They calculated that approximately 140 gigatonnes of water evaporated from the sea -- equivalent to 88 percent of the moisture that fell as snow over Europe.  

The authors concluded that if current warming trends continued, by 2080 an ice-free Barents Sea will be a major source of winter moisture for continental Europe.

This could potentially bring far wider disruption to traffic and other infrastructure in the form of extreme snow or rain fall.

"More frequent extreme winter snow and ice events will mean food delivery shortages, fuel shortages, personal supplies and the destruction of crops and produce and the base of the human food web," co-author Jeffrey Welker, from the University of Alaska Anchorage's Department of Biological Sciences, told AFP. 

Bailey said it might seem counterintuitive that warmer seas in the Artic could lead to more snow in Europe.

"But nature is complex and what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic," she said.