Dogsled Races Cancelled, Icebreakers Idle Northern Europe Experiences Record Warm Winter

This has been the warmest-ever winter in parts of Scandinavia, where dog sled owners have faced snow shortages, ski races have been cancelled and Baltic Sea ice is at an all-time low. Germany has also seen an unusually mild winter.


Dogsled operators in Tromsø Villmarkssenter are once again showing a certain optimism. "At the moment, we're able to offer our dogsled tours on a regular basis," says a sled dog handler named Agneta.

But that hasn't always been the case this winter. From mid-December to mid-January, there was so little snow in northern Norway that the sleds had to be kept in their sheds. Instead of dog sledding, tourists could go on hikes in the coastal mountains with the temporarily unemployed huskies.

"Now we hope that at least the snow will stay on the ground for a while," says Agneta. Even now, there still isn't that much snow. But at least the locals in Tromsø can take comfort in the fact that it is reasonably cold for the moment.

But meteorologists at the headquarters of the Norwegian weather service in Oslo don't have much in the way of good news to report. "This February was the second-warmest since records began in the year 1900," Heidi Lippestad told SPIEGEL ONLINE. She added that, according to the medium-term forecast, temperatures this spring will also be higher than the long-term average.

This has been a record winter in the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. Ship captains report historically small amounts of sea ice in the Baltic -- so small, in fact, that Swedish and Finnish icebreakers have spent most of the winter idle and at anchor.

According to Jürgen Holfort of Germany's Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency, this winter will likely go down in history as the one with the least ice since 1720. The Gulf of Bothnia, the northern end of the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden, is normally completely icebound from late February until mid-March, says Holfort. But this winter there was ice only in its northernmost tip and in a few archipelago zones farther south.

When it comes to ice thickness, the winter has also been abnormal, although this has been good for the ferry business. The express ferries between the Estonian capital Tallinn and the Finnish city of Helsinki, which normally halt service between December and April, have been able to operate practically without interruption.

Record Temperatures in Sweden

Other experts agree that this winter is unusually warm. John Ekwall of the Swedish weather service told the Associated Press that this is "the warmest winter ever." The average temperature in Stockholm, according to Ekwall, was above 2 degrees Celsius (36° Fahrenheit) from December to February -- the highest temperatures since records were first kept in 1756. Some 12 other weather stations across Sweden also reported record temperatures.

The news was no different on the other side of the Baltic. Southern Finland has had only 20 days of snow so far this winter. The region normally sees more than three times as many snowy days.

In Tartu, a university town in Estonia, the traditional ski marathon had to be cancelled a few weeks ago because there wasn't enough snow. Indrek Kelk, who organizes the event, is now hoping for a cold winter next year. Organizers plan to offer special conditions to skiers who were unable to compete this year to encourage them to come back next year.

Ice skaters who had hoped to meet at Sweden's Lake Malaren for the 80-kilometer (50-mile) Vikingarannet race were also out of luck. "There isn't one millimeter of ice," organizer Anders Tysk told the Associated Press. Tysk had repeatedly postponed the event from one week to the next before finally decided to cancel.

Too Warm in Germany

This winter has also been exceptionally mild in Germany, despite the snow that has disrupted traffic in large parts of the country in recent days.

"The situation in this country wasn't quite as extreme as it was in Scandinavia," Gerhard Lux of Germany's National Meteorological Service (DWD) told SPIEGEL ONLINE. According to Lux, the temperatures recorded at the DWD's approximately 2,100 measuring stations in the last few months did not reach the record high temperatures from last year.

The average winter temperature last year was more than four degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above the long-term average, while this winter's average is less than three degrees (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than normal. Nevertheless, this still makes the current winter the sixth warmest on record.

The warm temperatures have also meant early plant growth. Hazelnut trees and snowdrops, which normally bloom very early in the spring, already began blooming in early January. Coltsfoot is also blooming in many places, traditionally the signal for German farmers to begin tilling the fields to plant their spring grain.

The meteorological service's longer-term forecasts suggest that temperatures this spring will remain above the long-term average. "We expect fruit trees to begin blossoming about 14 days early this year," says DWD employee Brigitte Klante. "This would be similar to last year, which also began with an unusually warm winter."

If the complex calculations performed at the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in Reading, England can be trusted, summer will also be a little warmer than normal in Germany this year.

Meteorologists are relatively tightlipped when asked to explain the cause of the high temperatures. "No one but St. Peter himself knows that," says Lux, referring to the saint that Germans traditionally believe to be responsible for the weather. Lux adds that climate change could be part of the cause, although this would be difficult to prove.

With material from the Associated Press and DPA.


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