Source: BBC World Service
Date: 03/02/2007
Event: One Planet Special: "It seems the winters of our youth are unlikely to return"
Attribution: BBC World Service, also many thanks to Radio Ecoshock

  • Lars Bevanger: BBC journalist in Norway
  • Dr. Brenda EkwurzelClimate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Richard Hollingham: Science journalist, writer and broadcaster
  • Natalia Istratova: Spokeswoman, Moscow Zoo
  • Lasse Kolrud: Norwegian skier
  • Lang Yen: Beijing resident
  • Alexei Lyakhov: Head of Moscow Weather Bureau
  • Grahame Madge: Media Officer, RSPB
  • Dean Martin: American singer, film actor and television star
  • James Rogers: BBC's Moscow correspondent
  • Professor Rowan Sutton: Director of NCAS, researcher at Walker Institute 
  • Örn Thorsson: Icelandic farmer
  • Victor Watkins: Director of Wildlife, WSPA

BBC presenter: Now, for those of you in the northern hemisphere, has the winter finally arrived yet, or is it unseasonably warm? Here's Richard Hollingham with One Planet.

Richard Hollingham: A beautiful, warm, sunny day. The wind is rustling through the trees, the daffodils are blooming, larks are singing, there are butterflies and bumblebees... But at this time of year, shouldn't it be a lot colder? In the BBC's One Planet, whatever happened to winter?

[Dean Martin sings "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!"]

Dean Martin: Oh, the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we've no place to go,
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Richard Hollingham: Thirty years ago, winters in Britain were very different. I have the pictures to prove it. There I am, in my mittens, luridly-coloured woolly hat and red wellies. I was seven, you understand. There are pictures of snowmen, sledging and even an impressive cave that my sister and I dug into a snowdrift. These were proper winters. But don't just take my word for it. All over the world, winters seem to be becoming shorter and milder. 

Lang Yen: We almost hardly feel it was a winter, because it's so warm, and the seasons become not that different to each other.

Female Washington DC resident: It has been the craziest weather ever. I had to wear boots to come to work, because I'm going over these ice patches, and these snowdrifts. And last month, I was coming in a T-shirt and shorts!

Örn Thorsson: It's nothing weather. It's not bad and not good. But you must always be in your Icelandic sweater. 

Richard Hollingham: So what's causing these changes? Are we simply witnessing natural variations in weather and climate? Or are we starting to feel the effects of global warming? We'll hear from people across the world who are struggling to make sense of the weather, and try to get some straight answers from two eminent climate scientists. First, here's Lang Yen, recalling her childhood in Beijing. 

Lang Yen: When I was young, the winter was much colder than now. When I was in elementary school, my mum always dressed me like a little bear. I had to put on lots of layers of clothes - very thick cotton coat made by my grandma. So, in just my memory like it's always freezing, but we have some much snow at that time, and we always played outside when it was snowing. You know, playing snowballs, and also like building a snowman. I skated with my cousins at that time. Even like a normal river, small river in the city, it got frozen in winter, so we can skate on that. I think now like some lake in Beijing, like Houhai, the ice is very thin now - it's quite dangerous to skate on them. We almost hardly feel it was a winter, because it's so warm, and the seasons become not that different to each other.

Richard Hollingham: So what does Dr. Rowan Sutton, from the Walker Institute for Climate System Research, in southern England, make of those observations? 

Rowan Sutton: Well, she is describing trends that many people have observed in many different parts of the world. There, of course, has been a significant warming, and that's been seen over much of the northern hemisphere and indeed the southern hemisphere, although the northern hemisphere at present is significantly warmer. And it's been particularly observed in winter time. And in Europe, for example, we have seen that the recent winters in the UK are well over a degree warmer than they were 30 or so years ago. And that's associated with trends in snow and ice, for example, that the lady from China was describing. 

Richard Hollingham: I did love her description of being dressed like a little bear, when she was a girl. This is what everyone's talking about, isn't it, that winters are getting warmer, particularly in the northern hemisphere.

Rowan Sutton: Well indeed. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently concluded that the Earth, as a whole, has warmed up by about 0.7 degrees over the last hundred years, and the warming recently has been more rapid than was true earlier in the century.

Richard Hollingham: Can you attribute this to climate change? That's the crunch question.

Rowan Sutton: That is, of course, a very important question. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that most of the observed warming since the mid 20th century is - and I quote - "very likely due to the observed increase in greenhouse gas concentrations". Now it doesn't follow from that that a single warm winter in one location is simply attributable to greenhouse gases. One has to look at the longer-term trends and the larger spatial scale patterns. When one is looking at individual locations - say, China - there is of course a lot of year-to-year variability, and that's attributable to variations in the atmosphere and indeed in the oceans.

Richard Hollingham: So there is a natural variation going on - a natural cycle, if you like, of climate.

Rowan Sutton: Yes, I wouldn't describe it as a cycle, in the sense that it doesn't necessarily repeat itself, but there is a lot of variability from year to year, as of course everyone is familiar with, but also on longer time scales, that would arise in any absence of human effects on climate. However, when we look over the longer time scales, of 50 or 100 years, it is clear that the recent century has been very unusual, and this is attributable - with high probability - to the effects of human activities, particularly emitting greenhouse gases.

Richard Hollingham: Climate scientist Rowan Sutton. If there's one place you'd expect to get ice, it's Iceland. We'll hear from a farmer there, in a couple of moments, after we've headed to the ski slopes of Norway, and our reporter on skis, Lars Bevanger.

Lars Bevanger: In Norway it's been a funny winter, because these woods, just outside Oslo, criss-crossed by cross-country ski trails, were green and snow-less until late January. I, for one, cannot remember a single Christmas, for over 30 years, when it didn't snow here. But at the end of December there were green fields everywhere. That's highly unusual, and not least frustrating for people like me, who are used to setting off cross-country skiing in these woods, perhaps as early as the beginning of November. Well, I've just crossed tracks with you, Lasse Kolrud, - you're one of the many keen skiers here, in the forest outside Oslo, and you've come here with your dog today, to have an early ski run. The snow is not bad now, but what's it been like so far, this year?

Lasse Kolrud: It has been quite a short winter, with little snow and very high temperatures. It's just lost for weeks, we haven't had decent skiing. 

Lars Bevanger: And if it gets worse from here, say, with a shorter winter next year and a shorter winter next year. What's that going to do to your lifestyle? 

Lasse Kolrud: I have to do something with my lifestyle. I have to consider how much I'm driving and how I'm warming up my house...

Lars Bevanger: You might have to find another spare time activity, less skiing, maybe and more running [?] -

Lasse Kolrud: I'm very lucky because I have ski slopes just outside my home. I can still ski.

Lars Bevanger: If there's snow - 

Lasse Kolrud: If there's snow, yeah. Yeah.

Lars Bevanger: Okay, well yeah, better get your dog and get skiing, and have a nice trip. Good luck!

Lasse Kolrud: Thank you. [He goes.]

Lars Bevanger: Now, if you come to these woods at the weekend and it's easy to do - just a 20-minute tram ride from the centre of Oslo - the place is heaving with cross-country skiers. Some are actively training like Lasse here, but mostly it's families on their Sunday outing, taking a packed lunch and hot chocolate. If snowy winters become a rarity, for thousands of people here it would mean a forced change of lifestyle. We Norwegians pride ourselves on being active, outdoorsy kind of people. But a rainy, snow-free winter could easily kill off that spirit.

Örn Thorsson: My name is Örn Thorsson [?], and I'm living on a farm in East Iceland. The weather is changing in Iceland, and we recognise that, here on this farm. It's nothing weather. It's not bad and not good. But you must always be in your Icelandic sweater. What we were used to, ten years ago, it was snow. But now it is rain. And I'm very happy with that - the snow is always problem-maker. And the rain is running away, so I can't do everything, but it is not nice to be wet to the skin every day for animals, and I recognise that by the horses - they can stand being outside in minus 20 Centigrade in winter, and snow blowing. That's, to them, nothing. But when they are wet to the skin, and they need much more food, they are shouting and they try to come home and go inside, where they have nothing else - they are outside every year. So you must take much more care of the horses today, as for ten, fifteen years ago. 

Richard Hollingham: Örn Thorsson, who farms in the remote settlement of Husa in north-east Iceland. Whether we like frost, snow and ice, or, quite frankly, are happy enough without them, milder winters don't just affect humans. Many plants and several types of crops need a good long cold snap to enable them to grow properly. After mild, wet winters, farmers have reported drops in yields. Frost also knocks out diseases lurking in the soil, giving plants a healthy start in the spring. Animals, too, are reacting to the changes. 

Richard Hollingham: Okay, let's have a look through the telescope, which we've got set up here. 

Grahame Madge: So, I've just actually managed to train it on a little group of widgeon, that are just resting in the morning sunshine that we have here at Rainham. 

Richard Hollingham: At Rainham Marshes, on the river Thames east of London, Grahame Madge from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds shows me the wide variety of bird life that's attracted to this area of flooded grassland. Birds congregate here from across the globe. Some will stay for a while, others are simply in transit.

Grahame Madge: Most of the birds which come to the Thames are birds which come here in winter. Birds will arrive on the Thames Gateway all across from Arctic Canada right the way through Iceland, from Scotland, Scandinavia right across to Arctic Russia. And all of these birds come here for one reason, and that is that the Thames Gateway, and other estuaries around the UK coastline, are like motorway service stations. So, for tired and hungry travellers, these birds pile into these particular areas, in search of food. 

Richard Hollingham: Give us a sense, then, of how things have changed, because you've noticed changes. This is winter but there are, perhaps, birds here that shouldn't be here, or birds that should be here that aren't. 

Grahame Madge: What we're seeing at the moment is a gradual reduction in the numbers of birds which spend the winter in the UK. So we've seen, in the last two decades, a gradual shift away from the west coast estuaries, where birds used to have to escape the colder conditions in the east of Britain. Now those birds are finding the east coast estuaries slightly more to their liking. So we're seeing a shift eastwards, as birds don't need to travel so far in order to escape the harshest conditions and find food. And our fear is that, because the UK is so important for these two million or so birds which spend the winter with us, that these birds won't be able or need to travel as far to the UK in order to find food. Now for some birds that might not be too much of a problem. But for birds, particularly, that rely on our estuaries, there will be a problem, because those sorts of habitats, really, apart from areas like Germany and the Netherlands, don't exist anywhere else within north-west Europe. 

Richard Hollingham: So, has there been a big overall change, then, in the migration patterns of birds?

Grahame Madge: Yes there has, and it's taken place over a remarkably short time. In our gardens now we can even notice a change in the number of birds which are spending the winter with us. Thirty, forty years ago it would have been exceptional to get birds called blackcaps in winter - there's a very common bird, and we all have them around in our woodlands in summer. But increasingly, the numbers of blackcaps which are spending the winter with us has increased. And we know from ringing studies that these are birds which are being ringed in Germany and Austria, which instead of moving to the Mediterranean and North Africa in winter, have actually altered their migration pattern to spend the winter here. Now it could be that with a very few hard winters, that trend, that trait will be bred out as the birds won't be able to survive. But at the moment these birds are coming in increasing numbers, and it's possible now to see them in gardens all over the UK. Fifty years ago, you wouldn't have seen one. 

Richard Hollingham: Grahame Madge, at one of the motorway service stations of the bird world - turn east at London. World records show that the weather in some countries is getting warmer in winter. Other places are seeing dramatic changes from year to year, with tremendous extremes of temperature. Take Moscow, for example. Here's the story in 2006. 

Female newsreader: Schools are shut, traffic has stopped and people are dying. Temperatures in Moscow have plunged to -30 degrees Celsius, making the city even colder than the...

Richard Hollingham: One year later, January 2007, and there was no sign of winter at all.

Female newsreader: We're staying, for the moment, with coverage of our weather. And Russia is known for the severity of its climate - at least it was until this winter. Temperatures in the Russian capital are about 15 degrees above average for this time of year. The country is having...

Richard Hollingham: No-one's been sure what to make of it. And although it's got colder since, it's all - well, a bit weird. The BBC's James Rogers recorded this report in the middle of Moscow's winter.

James Rogers: Moscow is in shock. At this time of year, the people on the city's pavements should be shivering, slipping and sliding on sheets of snow and ice. But the digital display on the building opposite where I'm standing shows a temperature of plus 4 degrees Celsius - and for the Russian capital in January, that's pretty much the equivalent of a heatwave. 

[Bird noises.]

James Rogers: It's not just humans who are confused. These birds at Moscow Zoo might normally have been silenced by sub-zero temperatures. Zoo staff, like Natalia Istratova, say things are very different this year.

Natalia Istratova [via an interpreter]: The bears did go into hibernation at the end of December, when there was finally some snow. But the snow melted and the brown bears don't sleep deeply. The female wakes up to drink, and the male even to eat. 

James Rogers: On the banks of the Moscow River, the traffic is flowing freely. So is the water below. There should be a thick coating of ice at this time of year, but grey waves reflect the clouds overhead. What's really strange about this weather is that the corresponding week last year was one of the coldest ever in Moscow. Temperatures fell below -30 Celsius. This year there are about 15 degrees above average, and, as Alexei Lyakhov of the Moscow Weather Centre told me, mild weather means dull skies. 

Alexei Lyakhov: It is a very bad situation because we have very dark weather. Usually in winter, when we have snow, we have more light in our environment. But this year the weather in December, in January, is very dark in Moscow region.

James Rogers: People are missing the sun that comes with a sharp frost, and feeling pretty gloomy about it. Doctors advise that bananas and chocolate will cheer them up. Some in the Russian Orthodox Church fear that the warm winter is a punishment from God, and they're preparing to pray for snow. 

Man's voice: Moscow! King to D7 - [inaudible] - 

James Rogers: In the meantime, Muscovites are missing out on their winter sports. Even this ice chess game, played on a video link between London and Moscow, drew to a close just in time - the pieces were starting to melt. Perhaps the tabloid newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets has best defined the mood of a perplexed nation. It compared the weird weather to the other changes which have taken place here in the last two decades, and joked that the country's communist former rulers would never have allowed it.

Richard Hollingham: James Rogers reporting from the balmy streets of Moscow. It's not just Russian bears that are confused by the weather. It seems that in many places the animals have given up hibernating altogether. Victor Watkins, the Director of Wildlife at the World Society for the Protection of Animals, told me what should usually happen.

Victor Watkins: As winter approaches, bears will tend to feed as much as possible on high-calorie foods like nuts and berries. In the later stages, they will tend to eat something like 20,000 calories worth of food a day. 

Richard Hollingham: Twenty thousand's - just compare that with what a human would eat. We're on, what, a couple of thousand...

Victor Watkins: Couple of thousand. Yes.

Richard Hollingham: So ten times the amount we get.

Victor Watkins: Really stuffing the calories in, building up fat reserves. So the bears get fatter and fatter, and build up a very thick layer of fat around their bodies. That is all to prepare them for the time when there's food - less food available. If there's no snow in the area, if there's a very warm time, the bear will keep feeding. The hibernation is only going to take place if the food disappears at a certain stage. 

Richard Hollingham: So, let's go through that. If we've got a trend, which we've certainly had in recent years, of warmer winters, milder winters, shorter winters, what does that mean for bears?

Victor Watkins: It generally means that the bears will be able to feed for longer periods. Because if there is less snow, or if it's a warmer winter, the bear can roam further, it can feed continuously and so long as it finds food, it will keep out and about, it won't hibernate. 

Richard Hollingham: What's the problem with that? I mean, is there a downside of that? The bear's happy, presumably, because it's eating all the time - hibernating doesn't really matter, does it? 

Victor Watkins: Absolutely. For a bear, it just needs to keep feeding. So it's not a problem for the bear. But it may be a problem if the food becomes less and less scarce [I think he means "more scarce" here], which means that the bear has to move a bit further and further afield to find its food. That could possibly bring the bear into more contact with people, and could potentially cause a human/bear conflict situation.

Richard Hollingham: Are you seeing that in places around the world, then, just from your observations and reports that you're getting?

Victor Watkins: Yes, we've heard that in many countries now. The bears are out later than they would normally be, and there are more reports of bears being seen coming closer to human habitation - closer to villages, closer to houses - in the search for food. So there's certainly some evidence to say that bears are on the lookout for food in times of the year when they wouldn't previously be doing so.

Richard Hollingham: So is this going to have an impact on bear populations, if there is more conflicts [sic] with humans? Presumably there's going to be - I mean, if you live in a village, you're not going to want bears roaming around, are you? 

Victor Watkins: Absolutely not. The downside of this is potentially some of the bears may be killed. People don't want bears walking through the villages, don't want them rummaging through their rubbish bins, and there will be some instances where bears will be killed. So there is a potential for bears to die because of this particular problem.

Richard Hollingham: So let's get back to humans and hear from another place where they're used to cold winters. The home of the President of the United States - Washington DC. 

Female Washington DC resident: It has been the craziest weather ever. And I have lived here most of my life. But I was walking to work - I had to wear boots to come to work, because I'm going over these ice patches, and these snowdrifts. And last month, I was coming in a T-shirt and shorts! It's just been really nuts! I mean, I was bike-riding to the Metro - now I have to gear up, I have to put on so many layers of clothes. It's just been really, really a crazy winter here. Previous winters were just more normal. You know, you could kind of get prepared for it, it was the normal seasons, you know. So you didn't have to keep putting clothes on and taking them off, then rearranging your whole closet, on account of the kind of day it was going to be. It's just been nuts! It's been really difficult to kind of come to terms with. I'm so looking forward to spring. I just cannot wait for the warm weather to come and stay.

Brenda Ekwurzel: I'm Brenda Ekwurzel, and I'm the climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

Richard Hollingham: We've just heard, what - "nuts", "outrageous", "the craziest weather". Is this something that everyone's noticing, across the US? 

Brenda Ekwurzel: Yes, I think for the first time, really, people are starting to notice what we call, sort of, "season creep", in that winter is taking a little longer to start, so there's a delay, there's warmer fall temperatures. And spring is coming earlier, the buds come out earlier, and so on and so forth. And people are starting to notice, over the past few years - I mean, one of the key elements is that eleven of the last twelve years rank among the twelve hottest years on record since 1850, when we have really sufficient records. Climate change is more of a long-term pattern that we look at over decades. And really when people are tempted to look at a blizzard or a heatwave  - a single weather event like that doesn't prove anything about climate change. But what we do see is the longer-term trends are starting to show that the background conditions, under which weather is occurring, is definitely shifting, and that means that we're having shifts in our extreme weather.

Richard Hollingham: I was going to mention that, because a few mild winters - well, they've happened before, haven't they? We get mild winters - every country gets mild winters, every country gets very cold winters. The phrase in the UK is "two swallows don't make a spring", that we tend to look at things in very small time scales. Can you say there's a definite trend, though?     

Brenda Ekwurzel: Well, what we do have is that, thankfully, scientists have been drilling for years in ice cores all over, from tropical glaciers as well as the big, large ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, and that's pushing the record of climate back to 800,000 years. The more high-resolution records of, say, the little gases that are trapped in there that cause global warming, such as carbon dioxide and methane and nitrous oxide and so on - those show that we are in an unprecedented period, of very high levels of carbon dioxide and heat-trapping gases, than we've ever seen over the past 650,000 years. And they take a dramatic upturn after the industrial age begins. 

Richard Hollingham: What about, though, natural variations? I mean, the Earth's gone through ice ages before, it's gone through warm periods before. There are surely other factors that could explain mild winters.

Brenda Ekwurzel: Exactly, and that's because we have Earth as the experiment, it has gone through many climate changes in the past, and we study them very carefully in paleoclimate studies, and we understand how sensitive the Earth is to different changes, and what we call climate drivers. And what we find is slight changes in solar variation are important over the long term, and changes in a volcanic explosion that might blow up some reflecting particles into the atmosphere and cool the Earth. These things go hand in hand, and what we understand is that when we look at solar variations over the last century, that hasn't changed as much, compared to the dramatic increase in carbon dioxide and methane and other heat-trapping gases. And so what we're seeing is that our human-induced climate drivers are swamping the natural climate drivers. It's not as if we erase the natural cycles. They keep going on - it's just we are tilting them in a way towards a warmer planet.

Richard Hollingham: Now those of us who grew up with very cold winters, who tell our children that winter's not what it used to be, we're right, aren't we?

Brenda Ekwurzel: Yes, absolutely. It has changed.

Richard Hollingham: Sitting here at the BBC, leafing through my old photos, I can't help feeling nostalgic for proper winters. This year we had just one day of snow in southern Britain. Mind you, it still brought the roads, railways and airports to a standstill, and shut the schools. But as most people in London, Moscow, Washington, Beijing or Oslo will testify, a cold, crisp winter's day with snow on the ground is infinitely preferable to the mild, damp miserable winters many of us are having to get used to. And it seems the winters of our youth are unlikely to return.

Dean Martin [singing]: And, as long as you love me so,
Let it snow!
Let it snow!
Let it snow!