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: Making the most of culture and lake life

In this week's roundup, we delve into Germany's lakes and look at how to make the most of Germany's cultural offerings.

Living in Germany: Making the most of culture and lake life

Get out and enjoy the culture 

One of the hardest things about living in Germany (and elsewhere in northern Europe) is the relentless winter – it sure goes on for a long time. But with summer on the horizon and the pandemic thankfully over, it’s now time to get out of the house and really make the most of Germany’s cultural offering.

From folk festivals to music line-ups, there’s no shortage of events out there. One initiative that launches next month in Germany taps into just how important the arts scene is. The KulturPass or culture pass, is a birthday present for people turning 18 in 2023. Young people will get a €200 voucher to buy tickets for various cultural events. It’s aimed at encouraging young people’s interest in the arts after the pandemic meant they didn’t get a chance to enjoy much of public life. Meanwhile, venues were closed during various shutdowns in Germany which massively hit the industry. 

But even if you’re not 18 this year, it’s still worth getting out and exploring German culture, from opera and ballet to local gigs and shows. Check out our story on unmissable events this June for a taste of what’s going on, from Bachfest to Kiel Week. But go local too and ask around your community to see what’s on –  it’s a fun way to get more integrated into German life. 

Tweet of the week

This is certainly a phrase we hear a lot in Germany. See also: Heute, leider nicht.

Where is this?

Photo: DPA/Sven Hoppe

Those familiar with the Bavarian capital of Munich will know this scene well. Lots of people flock to the Isar river banks on sunny days to relax next to it (and even swim in it at some points). With the weather heating up in Germany recently, more people are heading to lakes and rivers. 

Did you know?

Speaking of lakes, perhaps we can wow you with a few facts as bathing season gets underway. Did you know that the biggest See in Germany is Bodensee or Lake Constance? The lake in Baden-Württemberg has a total area of 536 square kilometres and a depth of 254 metres. However, only part of the lake belongs to Germany. Switzerland and Austria each own an equal part. The largest lake that is fully located in Germany is the Müritz in Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania with an area of 117 square kilometres.

According to the Federal Environment Agency, there are more than 12,000 lakes in Germany. Most lakes are in northern Germany and in the foothills of the Alps. The site says that Brandenburg – with 2,857 is the state with the most lakes in Germany, followed by Baden-Württemberg (2,797) and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (2,044).

And what about the smallest See in Germany? Lake Titisee in the southern Black Forest is one of the smallest known bathing lakes in Germany, with an area of 1.3 square kilometres.