Connected Impacts of Cold Winter Weather

Understanding the potential connected risk arising from the current cold weather spell.


Introduction 

It wouldn’t be beyond the realms possibility to connect an Icelandic volcano with an unusual (by recent standards) Northern hemisphere weather pattern that has been impacting all of us in recent weeks.

Should the two coincide - as discussed, any ejected material could find its way South East towards the UK & Europe.  

Whilst the eruptions may have declined in the Reykjanes area of Iceland, many scientists there still believe an eruption (of some kind) is imminent - although this has been the case for over a fortnight now since the precautionary evacuation of Grindavik, when large cracks appeared across the town.  

The make-shift wall is still in place close to the Svartsengi geothermal plant as a precaution against surface lava flows. Until now, any extrusive (upwards explosive) eruption may have had only local impacts aerially across Iceland due to an Atlantic driven weather pattern across Europe with periodic jet stream pulses deflecting any aerosols away from mainland Europe. But with high pressure about to replace this pattern there could be - in the event an eruption - a reversal of fortunes.  

 

The Greenland block 

So has the likelihood of this weather effect increased? In short; yes. In fact, the beginnings of this shift in weather are already evident. Perhaps we should not be surprised as it all stems from a high pressure (block) setting up over Greenland. In winter this brings cold and in summer this brings warmth - usually both in the extreme. The summer heatwaves across the US and EU were both due in part to this semi-permanent high-pressure feature over Greenland - ebbing and flowing north and south resulting in more and less intense heat over the continents being drawn up from the south by an enhanced northward arm of the jet stream. The start to December looks to be unfolding in a similar fashion with high pressure moving northwards from the mid-Atlantic towards the Pole, however at this time of year the reverse happens, and this encourages cold polar air to flow southwards to lower latitudes.   

 

El Niño uptick 

The late season surge from the El Niño may have also created the spark with convection (rain/wind) pushing unusually far east towards the dateline creating a chain reaction by forcing the jet stream to bulge northwards into the Arctic displacing some of the cold air across the pole which would usually stay trapped. This in turn has created a more meridional or wavy jet stream and the combination of these two events, both draw the high pressure (usually centred over the Azores) westward, and breaks in the jet stream further north, allow for this higher pressure to head northwards with Greenland primed as a destination for its return.  

 

So what’s the outcome 

Notwithstanding the previous linkage to the potential eruption and its potential to impact European airspace, the impact of drawing in winds from the North or North East importing polar air and bringing sub-zero temperatures to most of mainland Europe and the US almost simultaneously, willcause disruption and ultimately cost for insurers. Spare a thought for those in the Ukraine without power… likely to be sub-zero night and day as the cold intensifies, and these regions will be the last to feel any moderation from the Atlantic, if at all until the days get longer...  

 

The power grid  

Ukraine could be an interesting case study this winter, particularly in terms of the impact of a cold snap on its national grid critical infrastructure, which malicious actors outsiders outside its borders may seek to exploit.  

A recent FT article notes that; “critical infrastructure is the physical and digital shared systems on which citizens depend. In the pre-internet age, a physical attack on critical infrastructure may have been considered an act of terrorism or war, and justice would be sought against the perpetrators. Yet today, organisations in these sectors face thousands of potentially devastating cyber-attacks every single day and may not even be able to identify the attackers, which could include rogue nations lured by the chance to paralyse industries, terrorise the public or engage in clandestine surveillance. 

Meanwhile, the FT article referencesresearch by Lloyd’s and the University of Cambridge estimating that a cyber-attack on the US power grid, for example, could result in damages exceeding $1 trillion. 

Russia commenced its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, power stations were targeted by missile and drone strikes, while cyber-attacks on state energy companies also rose by over 3500%. In this new terrain of conflict, combatants may not always be state sponsored—the growth of ‘hacktivist’ groups has led the International Committee of the Red Cross to suggest new rules of engagement for civilians conducting digital warfare.  

Countries in Europe and the UK are not immune to such attacks so if the cold weather does intensify it will certainly be interesting to note if there is a correlation with a rise in cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure. Is this corelation that could be tracked? 

 

A look back to Winter 2010 

It’s way too early to view the potential cold period across the UK in a similar vein to December 2010, when the UK, notably, was at times in the core of the coldest weather across Europe for most of the month. This cold intensified in the lead up to Christmas when the shops were usually the busiest. Retailers were hit by lost sales. Fewer people ventured out to the shops in such extreme weather. Another aspect is that deliveries did not make it to the shops due to closed roads and many supermarket shelves were empty.  

The cold spell was estimated to cost the UK economy £1.6 billion (Office for National Statistics), and in some areas became the coldest December for over 100 years. From a meteorological point of view, we argue quite extreme and therefore a repeat remains highly unlikely.  

Particularly if you factor in the recent warming trend in the 13 years since 2010. We also experienced close to record breaking temperatures across the North Sea earlier this year -now 1-1.5*C warmer than this time in 2010. The UK’s infrastructure has not always responded adequately to unfavourable winter cold conditions. Compared with countries such as Canada or in Scandanavia, snow and sub-zero temperatures can often have a disproportionate impact across infrastructure and transport. Train strikes in the UK are planned throughout December. The impact of strikes are a nuisance to commuters, but a spell of serious cold weather could exacerbate the situation and mount further pressure on unions to come to a deal. Or it may have the opposite effect. 

 

 

The potential combined impact 

In April 2010, during the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, the weather was cooler in the northwest, and the days were longer compared to December. This reduced the chances of freezing fog, which can cause flight delays. However, as we approach the shortest days of the year, cooling of both the continents and surrounding seas can lead to fog. Additionally, an increase in aerosols and particulate matter in the air can attract moisture and lead to fog and precipitation in drier conditions. This combination can result in widespread fog, potentially freezing fog, and more snowfall in areas that are usually dry and cold. So, the aviation industry may need to take note of this potential scenario. 

Weather is typically subject to feedback loops which drive and sustain its patterns. In this instance, the greater the impact both in severity and often speed of onset, a chain reaction – so to speak - could occur, and quickly; so how, where and when this unusual weather patterns develops needs watching, and Russell will be watching, very closely.  


 

 

 

Post Date: 01/12/2023

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