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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: FKK, raging Roland and ham on Father’s Day

In our weekend roundup for Germany we consider the possible culture shock of FKK, cool train trips and Männertag.

Living in Germany: FKK, raging Roland and ham on Father's Day

What are your thoughts on Germany’s attitude to nudity?

One of our most popular stories this week was a feature on why Germans love getting naked. Of course this doesn’t apply to every single person in Germany, but there’s undoubtedly a strong culture of FKK – Freikörperkultur – or free body culture. It can be a bit of a shock to foreigners when they first arrive in Germany or visit on holiday. FKK beaches, where people let it all hang out, are jarring when you’ve come from a culture where naked bodies are really only viewed in a sexual context. (Brits and Americans fall into this category!)

That’s the thing about FKK – it’s actually meant to be quite wholesome. Even if Germans are not into FKK, they do – in general – seem more at ease with their bodies than many other nationalities, and aren’t so worried about getting changed in gyms or at the swimming pool. What do you think about Germany’s attitude to nudity? Could we all learn something from it, or is it a bit too open? Drop us an email with your thoughts: [email protected]

Tweet of the week

We had to chuckle at this map of Germany shared by a German journalist on Twitter. Perhaps there’s a little truth to it…

Where is this? 

Photo: DPA/Stefan Sauer

Fancy a ride on a steam-powered train? You can if you head up to the very-cool looking Rügen narrow-gauge railway (Rügensche Bäderbahn), nicknamed the Rasender Roland (raging Roland). It has travelled across Germany’s island of Rügen from Putbus to Göhren since 1895. And, according to local German media, you can also use your €9 ticket in June, July and August on this railway since it’s part of the local public transport. 

Did you know?

We have a nationwide public holiday coming up – Thursday, May 26th is Ascension Day (Christi Himmelfahrt). In Germany it’s also Vatertag or Männertag (Father’s Day/Men’s Day). On this day, you can often see a lot of groups of men drinking beer together. 

This particular tradition apparently comes from the 18th century and it was based on the idea of Jesus’ return to his father in heaven. Back in the olden days, men would be taken into their village centre, and the man who had fathered the most children was presented with a prize by the mayor, which was usually a chunk of ham. That led to the modern tradition we see today of men carting around alcohol, eating food and walking around the countryside. Nowadays, people also use it as a day to party (all genders included) or relax. Whether there’s ham and alcohol involved in your day – or not – we hope you have a great one. 

Thanks for reading,

Rachel and Imogen @ The Local Germany 

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