Overview of the European Cold Wave a Snowfall During February 2012

Published: 11:19 PM GMT on February 17, 2012

Overview of the European Cold Wave a Snowfall During February 2012

The great European cold wave of February 2012 has finally begun to loosen its grip the past couple of days as temperatures have risen above freezing across most of the continent. The cold wave was the sharpest since 1991 or 1987 depending upon what source you use. Below are some of the event’s highlights.

The Cold Temperatures

As of February 17 the death toll from the cold wave has topped 650 with most of the cold-related fatalities occurring in the Ukraine and Russia. However, the only all-time cold record set at any specific location was a reading of -33.8°C at Astrakhan in Russia (located on the north shore of the Caspian Sea) on February 9th (previous record was -33.0°C in February 1954). Most of the temperatures reported were far short of their all-time records. The coldest unofficial temperature reported was -49.7°F (-45.4°C) at an undisclosed and uninhabited valley in Switzerland by a RAWS (remote automated weather site) and the coldest officially measured was a -45.0°F (-42.8°C) reading in Sweden.

Below is a table of the coldest temperatures officially recorded in each country during so far this February. The last columns of figures are the all-time national cold records for each country in C°:

Temperatures averaged 10-20°F below normal for almost two weeks across most of Europe with the exception the U.K., Spain, Portugal and Greece. Below is an example of departure from normal temperatures (in C°) for one of the coldest mornings, that of February 4th.:

A map of the temperature departure from normal on the morning of February 4th. These departures were more or less maintained for almost a two-week period across most of Europe. The cold wave did not quite reach the British Isles or Iberian Peninsula. From Meteo France.

The persistence of the cold was no that unusual for a mid-winter cold wave in Europe but was nevertheless shocking to most residents since it has been at least 20 years since the last cold wave of this magnitude has occurred. In Brussels, Belgium the temperature stayed below freezing for 14 consecutive days, close to the record 17 such set in the brutal cold wave of January 1941. Bucharest, Romania finally warmed up above freezing on February 16th for the first time since January 24th (the average high temperature for this period of time is 37°F/3°C) The Danube River has frozen over trapping commercial vessels in their ports or at anchor costing shipping companies millions of dollars in losses.

The frozen Danube River at Bucharest, Romania where temperatures stayed below freezing for 23 consecutive days. Photo from Reuters.

Big Snows

Snow cover across Europe and North Africa as of February 13th. Source: Office of Satellite Data and Processing.

Perhaps more impressive than the cold have been the prodigious snowfalls reported from some European locations. Worst hit seem to be Italy and the Balkans. Rome has had its heaviest snowfall since 1956 and the landmark coliseum has been closed because of falling masonry (ice forms in cracks and expands causing this).

A rare snowfall envelops the Coliseum of Rome in early February. Agence France Press (AFP).

The town of Urbino in central the hills of central Italy south of Venice received a staggering 132.9” (335 cm) of snowfall in the week between January 31 and February 5th. Reports of snow depths of one meter (39”) at sea level and 4 meters (157”) in mountain valleys have been mentioned in the press.

A couple of images from the streets of Urbino, Italy where over 3 meters (132”) of snow fell in five days late January into early February. Photos by Filippo Biagianti (bottom) and Federico Barattini (top).

In Bosnia the snow accumulated to 99.6” (253 cm) at Bjelasnica and avalanches have killed at least nine so far in the country. Snow depths peaked at 63” (160cm) in Macedonia at Popova, and 52.4” (133cm) in Kopaonik, Serbia. In Croatia a depth of 46.8” (119cm) was measured at Zavizan.

Snow accumulation map of Croatia for February 12th. Note the steep accumulation from 2cm (less than an inch) to 119cm (almost 4 feet) over the short distance between Rab and Zavizan on the northwest coast.

At the lower elevations in Croatia ice accumulations of at least 2” (5 cm) toppled transmission towers and isolated some communities for days.

Heavy ice accumulations toppled transmission towers near Rab, Croatia in mid-February. Photo by Slobadan Rosic.

Snow has also been reported over a wide area of North Africa, even at sea level in Algeria. 2-3” (5-7 cm) of sleet fell on the coast of Libya at Tripoli with snow accumulations of up to 6” (15 cm) inland in the hills.

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.