The Cold Creeps In - The Reykjavik Grapevine

The Cold Creeps In

The Cold Creeps In

Published April 8, 2016

Main photo by
Art Bicnick

When it finally set in last November, Iceland was seemingly headed for another severe winter in comparison to the years between 1998 and 2013, in a near to perfect chilly tandem with 2014.

On the dark morning of December 1st, a raging snowstorm thwarted traffic in Reykjavík. It passed across Iceland during the afternoon and evening, well into the night. Three days prior to the storm, a 33-year-old record for November snow depth in Reykjavík had been broken. The snow fell without any wind, followed by two perfectly calm, sunny days with nighttime northern lights in clear skies. The uniform snow depth in my garden was 38 cm (freshly fallen). A week later, it was about 50 cm. Such numbers are much more common in the north of Iceland.

A frosty New Year

The New Year greeted Iceland with a lull after two severe December storms. The former storm, a deep low-pressure system (or cyclone), affected the whole country on December 7th and 8th. The winds attained 30-40 m/s, depending on landscape and time, with gusts up to 50-70 m/s. The air was rather warm, so rain accompanied this severe storm of hurricane-like proportions. Some damage was registered, especially to a number of old buildings and small boats in a few harbours. The latter storm, of similar force with heavy rain, hit eastern and northern Iceland on the 29th and 30th of December. This time, the damage was more extensive, hammering old buildings, harbours, roads and land. This former super-cyclone from the USA also caused problems in Britain.

The Iceland Meteorological Office report for 2015 tells us that last year was the coldest one of this century, albeit slightly warmer than the average year of the 1960-1991 period. The number of passing low-pressure systems was high and the weather windy with quite a lot of snow. The first months of 2016 have been much calmer, with “normal” storms and fine days in between, but still cold, especially very late in January and through most of February.

Glaciers: Mass gained

Telltale signs of two rather cold years are evident in some of Iceland’s glaciers. In 2014, the weather was characterized by cold, stormy and snowy winter months, especially above 400 metres in altitude, and by a chilly summer, except very late in the northeast of Iceland. The cold onslaught is clearly reflected by the glacier budget of the Hofsjökull Ice Cap in Central Iceland. The budget year lasts from autumn to autumn the total 2014-2015 budget turned out to be positive, with a surplus snow mass, for the first time in 23 years. This welcome snow (from a glacial standpoint!) will slowly metamorphose into new ice.

The rather harsh winter weather of 2015-2016 has turned out to be similar to last year’s, in most corners of Iceland. If the summer weather stays cool, the high North Atlantic region might be heading for a somewhat long-lasting cold spell, maybe like the one that reigned from the late 1960s until the mid 1990s. However, a chilly period could well be much shorter this time and it will definitely not affect the general trend of global warming. The proposed causes for the cold snap include plausible incidents like repositioning and size variations of near-to-permanent high-pressure systems over Greenland and the Azores region, a distinct drop in sea temperature due to frequent northern winds, and slight but influential variations of the ocean current system.

Ari Trausti Guðmundsson has been active as a lecturer and non-fiction writer in the fields of geology, volcanology, astronomy, environmental science and mountaineering, with over 40 published book titles. In addition, Ari Trausti also has published short stories, seven collections of poems and four novels. Educated as a geophysicist in Norway and Iceland, Ari Trausti works as a freelance consultant in the fields of geoscience, tourism and environmental issues as well as writing and hosting numerous radio and television programs and documentaries. Ari Trausti is also noted as an avid mountaineer, Arctic traveller and contributor to scientific exhibitions, visitors’ centers and museums in Iceland and abroad. In 2007 and 2010, he received prizes for communication in science.

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