Extreme Weather: Harsh Winters

Extreme Weather: Harsh Winters

In the last few years Europe has seen the worst of all seasons: scorching summer suns, torrential spring rains, record autumn droughts and bitter winter snows. It has been said that last winter was the most severe in the past half-century, in January and February 2012 there were even more extremes, of temperatures reaching record lows. And so, this very well may be global climate change that we are witnessing.

This winter, the temperatures were swinging to record lows across the continent, causing the Danube, its tributaries, and their basins to freeze. This made it extremely difficult, and at moments impossible for the region to maintain its normal operations.

The snow had swept entire towns and communities, cutting off their electricity, running water, and transportation connections - both waterways and roads. The Danube was affected, most notably, in Bulgaria and Ukraine. Cargo vessels and their crews were stuck in ports and disallowed from leaving until the conditions have improved, with rescue missions trying to get to the most urgent cases, such as those stuck in the ice.

It is not uncommon to see thin icing across the surface of the river in the winter months, but not to the severity where it has solidified 700km of the river, a major throughway. Combined with the record droughts in November 2011, the lower than usual volume of the river was more easily affected.

There was a ban on navigation because the conditions were deemed unsafe. The prolonged extreme weather conditions caused businesses along the river to lose a lot of money in late cargo costs, increased power consumption, and the protection of cargo from frostbite, with estimates running high into 7-figure numbers.

Perplexed as to why this is happening? Here is a bit of meteorological background: unusual wind currents have swept across Europe bringing high-pressure cold polar air from the Arctic inland. The high pressure system pushed out the usually mild and more manageable temperatures, which clashed with the seasonal jet stream from the Atlantic and 'locked in' over Europe, causing prolonged cold air. All along the Danube these low temperatures turned moisture into deep frost.

Usually municipalities can account for some natural hazards, to the extent of their abilities and financial means. However, the frequency of extreme conditions is complicating the procedures further.

Heavy repeated snowfall and continuous extreme sub-zero temperatures cause places to declare a critical or emergency state as they are unable to cope - administratively and financially - with the delivery of provisions to the stranded populations due to the magnitude of rescue activities needed. February was especially harsh, with Belgrade declaring a state of emergency, and parts of Romania and Bulgaria in the Danube basin calling for a critical code of conduct.

Rescue teams were stretched to capacity, with international relief crews and funds also reaching their limits, especially in Serbia and parts of Ukraine. Increased cases of accidents and deaths as a result of extreme cold confirmed the need for more adequate humanitarian assistance and means of delivering it.

The variations and unpredictable patterns of seasons are signalling bigger challenges ahead - increased or decreased precipitation, temperatures, and droughts tend to alter the river's volume, making it vulnerable to fluctuating conditions, thus disrupting the movements of people and goods, and the practices of communities that depend on the river for their livelihood.

Moreover, the increased instances of extreme flooding, river overflow, and in general the rising sea levels are endangering coastal communities. Such events are known to interfere with regular river transportation schedules, commerce, and freight, not just tourism.

Watch this space for more information and the solutions that the region is working on to achieve better manageable and more sustainable future.