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Overview of the European Cold Wave a Snowfall During February 2012

By: Christopher C. Burt, 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

Winter Weather

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

Reader Comments

I've been in Geneva for most of this event, and have found out the hard way that Geneva is not a particularly good place to be in these situations - it's a funnel for NE winds and there have been several days with winds gusting over 80 km/h and temperatures near -10C, not a nice combination. (There has been some spectacular icing on the shores of Lake Geneva from breaking waves and freezing spray).

Trying to get a handle on the long-term significance of the event is something I've been thinking about as well (not least because I've been called on to do a bit of media on it); a one in 10-20 year event seems about right. Compared with the 1987 event (I'm not sure why 1991 is even in the frame), it was generally less intense at its peak but lasted a bit longer. Collecting good information in a hurry is a challenge when you're dealing with multiple countries (and multiple languages). I haven't looked at circulation in detail but the pattern of temperature anomalies strikes me as being similar to that of February 1956, except that in 1956 they lasted for the whole month (monthly anomalies near -10C were common in central Europe). Like February 2012, February 1956 was a bit of a non-event in Britain.

One place where the temperatures of 1987 have been surpassed is the Netherlands: De Bilt (where the Dutch meteorological service is headquartered) had -18.9, their lowest since 1956. (Based on my Geneva experience and numbers I've seen from elsewhere, I think this event is probably more notable for low daytime highs than overnight lows, but European meteorological services don't tend to make a big deal of low daytime highs so it's hard to get good information on them).

I would expect the spectacular snowfall amounts on the east coast and nearby hills in Italy would be through similar mechanisms to lake-effect snows in North America. My Italian contacts tell me that such snowfall amounts are rare but not unprecedented in the region. (By the way, some of your readers may not know that most of the Croatian coast is mountainous so the inland sites are at several hundred metres elevation, resulting in higher snowfall).
Great work as always, Chris. Wow, that 99.6 (253 cm) of snow at Bjelasnica is an astounding amount.

I love that picture of the frozen Danube River. "The frozen Danube River at Bucharest, Romania where temperatures stayed below freezing for 23 consecutive days.". Yes, one would imagine so. ;-)
Just a little correction about the Reuters picture on frozen Danube. Bucharest is about 60 km away from the Danube river. Danube crosses several European capitals: Wien, Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, but not Bucharest. Anyway, Danube being a fairly large river in the Romanian sector does not freeze too often, which highlights the intensity of the cold wave. I remember also the winter of 1984-1985 as being extremely cold and with substantial snowfall across most of the Europe.
Despite most places in Europe being far short of reaching their all-time record lows, so many places were badly prepared. Death toll of 650+ is unacceptable.

The snow totals impress me a lot more. Accumulations in Italy and the Balkans seem as great as any Cascades or Great Lakes event!

Similar to February 2010 in the Mid Atlantic when all time record snows occurred without record cold. Or even close approaches to cold temperature records.
Thank you, Chris. That was definitely a historic cold snap. I was surprised myself to see the relative lack of monthly and all-time record lows; to hear some talk about the outbreak of cold temps, you'd think it had never before been that chilly there.

One thing I found fascinating is how relatively small the affected area was; at any one time, the pool of cold air, while deep, was geographically constrained. For instance, there were daily cold records being set in southern Norway, while daily (and monthly) high records were being set in the northern islands (Svalbard).

I'm happy to see that now most of the cold air is gone; in fact, the UK is having a bit of a heat wave at the moment, with record and near-record highs all over the islands. Nice!
Love your blog, very informative -

Just a couple of pieces of additional information about this cold wave:

1. It came on the heels of a very warm winter thus far, in one of the more dramatic reversals on record, also akin to what happened in 1956 and 1986;

2. For much of Central Europe (more than 50% of Germany and Poland), it ended up with hardly any snow on the ground (your snow cover map is from the 13th, and does not differentiate between 1cm and 100cm), leading to what may very well be one of the all-time coldest spells on record with such little or no snow. Unfortunately for Holland, they ended up with a fairly big snowstorm in the middle of this cold snap that ruined their chances for the 'Eleven City'-ice skating race in the southern part of the country, otherwise it would have been cold enough for a long enough period to allow for their first race in 25 years;

3. The 'big snows' extended further east than mentioned, in particular into Romania and Turkey, again with help from the 'Lake Effect' of the Black Sea instead of the Mediterranean;

4. Sea level pressure hovered around 1065mb for several days early on in this cold wave over Northern Europe, also quite unusual (once every 2-3 decades I would guesstimate). During this period in early February, several coastal cities in northern Norway set new all-time record lows, such as Hammerfest with -19.9C, Tromsø-Holt with -17.2C, and Narvik with -19.3C.

All of this information is based on the German-language "weather forum" at:
Correction: the Norwegian records were FEBRUARY records, not all-time. They were associated with 'bora' conditions with all that cold air spilling over the Scandinavian mountains towards the Atlantic.