Cold waves still matter: characteristics and associated climatic signals in Europe

Benjamin Quesada, Robert Vautard, Pascal Yiou

Research output: Contribution to journalResearch Articlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Few studies explore extreme wintertime European cold waves (CW) despite their huge economic, and social impacts and a recent decade punctuated by CW (February 2012, January 2017 or March 2018), while Europe bets on mild winter to avoid an energy crisis in 2023. Here, we investigate potential early CW warning signals and model biases over the winters (November-to-March) of the 1950–2005 period, calculating the atmospheric and surface conditions of key climate variables (e.g. snow, incoming radiation, cloudiness, pressure, winds and sea surface temperatures variables) both in reanalyses and climate models, before and during CW events. We show that global coupled climate models systematically overestimate the number of CW in the present-day period. Until 30 days before CW, some robust and significant early patterns emerge, both in models and reanalyses: weak atmospheric blocking, anomalously negative North Sea surface temperatures (SST) and a deficit of incoming longwave radiation. Downward shortwave radiation is anomalously positive during and before CW which weakens arguments for direct negative solar forcing on winter extreme cold events in Europe. Climate models share in their great majority (> 80%) these patterns (for dynamical and radiative-related variables, spatial correlation r > 0.7) and can correctly simulate the sign of climate variables anomalies during and at least 7 days before CW. We find that excess of European snow cover and snow depth are unlikely to cause occurrences of CW, but the advection of cold air masses (North-East) emerges as a potential precursor signal of a majority of CW. In a context of climate change, fossil fuels scarcity and increased uncertainty due to geopolitical events, it is crucial to study the sensitivity of the energy, health and agriculture sectors to compound extreme weather, including cold waves.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number70
JournalClimatic Change
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jan 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Atmospheric Science


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