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Why Germany is facing extreme winter weather this month

A mix of icy polar air in northern Germany and very mild spring air in the south will result in rare winter weather conditions. Here's what's forecast and why.

Why Germany is facing extreme winter weather this month
People enjoying the snow in Kiel on Thursday. Photo: DPA

What's happening?

Forecasters are predicting rare and difficult weather conditions in Germany starting this weekend.

Large amounts of snowfall is expected in the northern half of the country while it will rain in the south.

Over the weekend, temperatures will hover around freezing in the north and northeast during the day, dipping to -7C at night. In the south and southwest, the mercury could reach a very respectable 13C.

In the Berlin-Brandenburg region, 5 to 20 centimetres of snow is possible from Sunday to Monday – and even up to 40 cm in some parts of the region. 

And in the parts of Germany where the cold and warm air meet there's expected to be a lot of wind, which means that full-blown snowstorms may happen at an icy -5C.

It is still unclear whether the area of snowfall will spread between North Rhine-Westphalia and eastern Germany or from Münsterland via the Hanover area to Saxony.

Following the snow, at least a week of freezing permafrost on the ground is expected.

READ ALSO: Weird weather – temperatures between -7C and up to 20C expected in Germany at weekend

So why is this happening now?

According to experts, the conditions for this burst of cold air developed at the beginning of the year because there's an unusually unstable polar vortex at the moment.

In January, the polar vortex – a huge low-pressure area that circulates in the stratosphere far above the Arctic in winter – collapsed.

As a result, the jet stream – a band of strong winds in the atmosphere – also became unstable.

It began to lurch, allowing cold air to penetrate far to the south. A stable polar vortex, on the other hand, normally ensures a strong jet stream that holds the cold air together over the Arctic, thus clearing the way for warmer air masses from the Atlantic to reach Europe.

The tweet by the German Weather Service (DWD) below shows the split in weather conditions across Germany on Friday.

Climate researcher Marlene Kretschmer, of the University of Reading in the UK, told the Berlin Tagesspiegel newspaper that as far as can be judged at present, the cold air is related to the state of the polar vortex.

“We know that the probabilities for such weather situations increase very strongly when the polar vortex is weak,” Kretschmer said.

After the collapse of the polar vortex in early January, this kind of event occurred twice more. “After a short recovery, the vortex became weak again – these weak phases favour weather situations like we are currently seeing,” she said.

The vortex split, causing more unstable weather which some meteorologists and scientists expect to happen again. Kretschmer currently expects a shift of the vortex, but the effects on the weather are similar.

The collapse of the polar vortex is accompanied by a sudden warming in the stratosphere at an altitude of 10 to 50 kilometres – a so-called major warming characterised by easterly winds at high altitudes. This increases the likelihood of icy polar air from the Arctic to the south.

These kinds of situations are observed about seven times in 10 years, and in extreme cases, such as in 2013, Germany can experience severe frost, even permafrost, into April.

But the consequences of the event could also hit Scandinavia and regions east of it harder.

In Western Europe, there are many other drivers of the weather. “In Germany, the effect of weak polar vortex phases varies greatly from event to event,” Kretschmer said.

Effects can last up to two months

Extreme events in the stratosphere are relatively short-lived, but they can affect our weather for several weeks, say forecasters.

Kretschmer is also concerned with the question of whether global warming could contribute to an accumulation of extreme winters. To what extent climate change plays a role in the current event is difficult to judge, she said.

Some forecasters now believe the polar vortex will not recover this winter, which would allow cold waves to continue into spring.

Kretschmer, however, thinks it is too early to make these statements. At the moment, it's unclear how long the extreme weather will continue and affect Germany.

Meanwhile, some weather experts have said there is the potential for a repeat of Europe's catastrophic winter of 1978/79, but say it's too early to jump to conclusions.

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LIVING IN GERMANY

Living in Germany: Long-distance train boost, confusing kitchens and Hanover highlights

In our weekly roundup about life in Germany we look at plans to invest in the train network, the perplexing lack of kitchens in German flats, the arrival of Herbst and some cool things about Hanover.

Living in Germany: Long-distance train boost, confusing kitchens and Hanover highlights

German long-distance travel set for modernisation programme

There are some really positive things about train travel in Germany, but there is definitely lots of room for improvement. So we were glad to report this week that Deutsche Bahn is planning a €19 billion modernisation programme. The operator says that an extra 450 high speed – or ICE – trains will be added to the country’s network in the coming years. CEO Richard Lutz said the aim is to invest in “the trains of the future”, and even unveiled new double-decker models that will include special office cabins and family areas. The aim is to encourage people to leave their car at home and take the train. Let’s hope that punctuality gets better along with the style of trains. And there is good news when it comes to local public transport: German transport ministers plan to thrash out a plan next month for a €9 ticket successor. Although details are thin on the ground at the moment, it is likely to cost €49 and will be valid on buses, trains and trams throughout local transport networks. 

READ ALSO: How did train travel in Germany get so bad?

Tweet of the week

We relate to English footballer Georgia Stanway, who plays for Bayern Munich, and her confusion about German flats being rented out without a kitchen.

Where is this?

Pumpkins being taken by boat.

Photo: DPA/ Patrick Pleul

You know it’s Herbst (autumn) in Germany when the pumpkins are out in force. This photo shows Harald Wenske steering a Spreewald barge fully loaded with pumpkins across the water. The 72-year-old also grows potatoes, horseradish and beets in addition to pumpkins on his farmland, which is surrounded by waterways. Now is the time when you’ll start to see Kürbis (pumpkin) on the menu everywhere. 

READ ALSO: 10 ways to enjoy autumn like a true German

Did you know?

Situated on the River Leine, Hanover is the capital of Lower Saxony, which has a state election coming up on October 9th. But did you know it is also home to the World of Kitchens museum (or das Küchen-Museum), the first of its kind in Europe? The museum houses a cafe and cooking school, and features dozens of real kitchen exhibits from different cultures and eras starting from the Middle Ages. Visits to the museum are only possible with pre-booked guided tours, but are well worth it for food and history lovers.  Either at the end of your tour or before, make sure to indulge in traditional German cake and coffee at the Museum’s Schloss Cafe. While in Hanover, you should also check out the Royal Gardens of Herrenhausen, the New Town Hall and Eilenriede Forest. 

Thanks for reading,

The Local Germany team

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