Don’t let pictures of snowbound Americans give you the wrong impression. Worldwide, it’s actually a pretty warm winter.
Europeans, in particular, are enjoying sweater weather — it was 16C (61F) in Berlin on New Year’s Day. But China and central Japan are also looking at unseasonably mild temperatures next week and into the Lunar New Year. In the US, warmer weather is coming through mid-January.
It’s been a reprieve after months of worries that the energy crisis would leave thousands with insufficient heat. It’s also offered more evidence for how climate change is shifting seasonal patterns of energy consumption from winter heating to summer cooling. In that sense, the anticipated price spikes may have only been pushed off until July or August, and a hotter summer will make it that much harder to refill inventories for next winter.
“This winter’s mild spells will clearly help Europe get through a war-related energy crunch,” said Bob Henson, a meteorologist with Yale Climate Connections and the author of the Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change. “But the same climate has also raised the odds of horrific European wildfires like those that struck last summer. We can’t pick and choose from the many downsides and the occasional upside of a changing climate.”
In Europe, the winter heat wave is an extension of a record-hot summer that ruined harvests and dried up waterways. The Czech Republic registered its warmest-ever New Year’s Eve. In Warsaw, mercury recently passed its previous peak by more than 5C.
In general, the planet’s colder places are changing faster, with the Arctic seeing some of the most drastic shifts. Across the US, winter is warming faster than other seasons, according to National Weather Service data.
Consumers may, for the moment, be enjoying more than the weather. In addition to using less heat, rates are falling; natural gas futures, an indicator of how likely fuel supplies are to fall short, are at their lowest since 2021. In the US, the domestic gas rate has fallen 28% since Christmas.
“Mild weather, especially the extreme warmth that delayed first heating demand by six weeks, and then the mild turn of the year, undoubtedly helped Europe get through this winter,” said Henning Gloystein, a director for energy, climate, and resources at Eurasia Group in London.
While factors including shifts to the jet stream and unusually high sea surface temperatures are driving the current warm spell, meteorologists agree that climate change is what’s made it a record-breaking event.
“Climate change is like steroids for the weather,” said Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. “It takes an event that would’ve happened anyway and makes it more extreme. So a heat wave or rain event that would’ve been routine gets pushed into the dangerous or destructive range due to climate change.”
In November, about 200 nations reaffirmed commitments to contain future temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But their failure to agree on how to meet that target puts progress in doubt, making extreme weather events, and heat waves, more likely. The world has already warmed about 1.1C since the 19th century, and scientists project the 1.5C goal could be breached within a decade.
While Europe’s energy consumption is set to slide thanks to the mild weather, it won’t do much to reduce emissions in the near future, said Eurasia Group’s Gloystein. In an effort to wean off Russian oil and gas, European countries have increased coal-fired power generation.
“It’ll be another year or three before Europe’s pollution and emissions go into serious decline again, even amid milder weather,” Gloystein predicted.