Will all our Christmases be white?

A snow-covered winter sceneAre snow-covered Christmases a thing of the past?

Are snow-covered Christmases a thing of the past?
By Roddy Langley

Traditionally, Christmas in the UK makes us think of think of festive winter scenes scattered with snow and children playing on their sleds. Up until 1850 this was frequently the case, with the UK experiencing numerous severe winters.  Rivers often froze over, there was skating on the Thames, and festive Frost Fairs were prevalent.

However, it is increasingly clear that this pattern has changed.  It is now generally agreed among meteorologists that the 90s was the warmest decade for 1000 years.  Last year's winter was the second mildest on record and according to Met Office statistics, there have only been three white Christmases in Greater London in the last 20 years. Despite the recent cold snap across the UK, this year’s Christmas is also forecast to be mild, as highlighted by Stephen Davenport of the private weather forecasters MeteoGroup: "Despite enduring recent incursions of cold air, this winter is expected to be milder than average." 

Although the odds for snow on Christmas Day have dropped in the past few weeks, the BBC Weather Centre’s outlook from 24th December to 6th January 2008 is gloomy for sledgers, predicting: “average temperatures” and if there is snow, it will be “brief”.

It is not only those who are desperate for a white Christmas who may be disappointed. Many Britons head off to mainland Europe at around this time of year for a winter skiing break, and increasingly find no snow to ski on. Many winter sports insurance policies now cover you against snow failing to materialise, a worrying possibility. At the other extreme, you will often also be entitled to payment for extra travel and accommodation expenses if too much snow arrives and there is an avalanche which delays your journey.

Holiday makers are not the only ones who fear a snowless winter. Businesses which provide ski packages or resort owners are also feeling the pressure, and looking to the insurance industry to help make them feel more secure against climate change.  However, as the likelihood of a lack of snow increases, so inevitably will the premiums, and the accessibility of cover.

What will the trend be in the future? The current opinion is that by 2080 the annual average temperature across the UK will have increased by 1-3°C and that future winters could be more than 10 – 15% wetter than today. The average December temperature in recent years has been around 8.8°C, so we could expect temperatures of up to 11.8°C by 2080, leaving snow very unlikely. However, climate and weather are not the same thing.  The weather is what we see day to day and is highly variable whereas climate is an average and is more predictable.  There will still be a possibility of snow, but there may be less of it on average.

One of the key concerns about climate change is the unpredictability it will bring. A 2007 report by Lloyd’s on rapid climate change, shows that climate change will lead to more precipitation, which in cold and mountainous regions, for example areas of the US and Scandinavia, will be in the form of snow. The US and Canada have recently been ravaged by snow storms, with record levels of snow falling, and in January 2007 Europe was hit by the snow storm Kyrill, which caused widespread damage across Western Europe, including Benelux,  Germany and the UK. This storm was the world’s most expensive single catastrophic event of the year, costing underwriters $5.9bn.

With higher levels of precipitation and more severe weather events expected in many temperate regions, tobogganing may actually become more likely for some, while others contend with the possibility of flooding.

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