It was raining again on Monday in Oslo, where no snow has fallen in January for the first time since measurements began 83 years ago. In the mountains of Stryn, farther to the north, cattle were released from their barns to graze on green grass. Something is clearly wrong when winter seems to have disappeared.
“I keep waiting for winter to come, but it hasn’t,” Ketil Isaksen, a researcher at the state Meteorologic Institute in Oslo told news bureau NTB on January 20. A week later, it still hasn’t, and he’s worried, not just for the ski season that’s being ruined in many areas around southern Norway. Everything from the permafrost on Svalbard to Norway’s flora and fauna north to south is under threat.
At the highest elevations elsewhere in the southern part of Norway, herds of hungry wild reindeer have been heading down to inhabited areas this month to find food. Mild daytime temperatures where they normally roam above timberline have melted snow that fell earlier, and when it freezes at night, the reindeer are unable to kick through the ice that forms on top the snow. Rain has also fallen on snow at high elevations this month, creating more ice that’s forced endangered reindeer from the mountains of Bykle, for example, down to a regional ski center at Hovden.
Reindeer at risk
That’s prompted local officials to close off groomed ski trails in areas where snow is still soft, so that the reindeed can graze there undisturbed instead. Local residents and those with hytter (cabins) in the area have also been ordered to keep their dogs on a leash while outdoors, so the dogs don’t spook or attack the reindeer.
“I haven’t seen conditions like this in the more than 30 years I’ve been in Hovden,” Bykle Mayor Jon Rolf Næss told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Sunday. “If this (the mild weather) continues, I fear the consequences.”
Local newspaper Agder reports that extraordinary leash and løype closures are also in effect at Sirdal in Agder County, which extends from the mountains down to the southern coast of Norway. “We hope (the measures) will be respected, to protect the reindeer,” Sven Sandvik of Sirdal Kommune told the paper. He said wild reindeer herds had been seen near large local hytte communities.
In the Oslo area, the sheer lack of snow is dramatically changing lifestyles and recreational pursuits. Many Norwegians become downright grumpy when they can’t just head outdoors for a long day of cross-country skiing at no expense. Local ski association Skiforeningen has faced major challenges trying to prepare ski trails in the hills that surround the Norwegian capital. The association also wants to maintain ski school for youngsters and carry out traditional ski races. Newspaper Aftenposten reported already last fall, however, how the number of ski days based on snow measurements at Bjørnholt in Nordmarka have fallen from 136 in the period from 1961 to 1990, to just 94 in the current period that runs from 1991 to 2020.
“The tendency is clear: Autumn is longer and spring comes earlier,” retired meteorologist Gustav Bjørbæk told Aftenposten.
Researchers have noted that some areas of the country are warming up much faster than others. While Southern Norway is craving snow, Northern Norway has been battling blizzards and mounds of snow for months. NRK reported nearly a 50-degree temperature difference between Kautokeino in Finnmark on Monday and Tafjord in Møre og Romsdal. Thermometers sunk to minus-37C in Kautokeino while Tafjord residents woke up to +10C. Finnmark, though, has also experienced some remarkably warm summers of late, along with landslides caused by heavy rain.
Mild temperatures and heavy rain also set off more landslides around Southern Norway over the weekend, isolating several communities like Sør-Eitran in Trøndelag. The ground and local hillsides are normally frozen solid and covered with snow and ice at this time of year. Now the ground is highly unstable. State meterologists predict that 100 towns and cities in Norway will set high temperature records this month.
“We should have had around 25 centimeters of snow here,” Kristian Gislefoss told NRK as he stood outdoors on green grass outside the Meteorologic Institute at Blindern in Oslo this past weekend. “But there’s nothing. This is an extremely alarming January, with so many places around the country poised to set (high) temperature records with the mild weather.”
The average temperature in Oslo so far this month has been 2.9C (38F), while “normal” is minus-4.3C (24.2F). In Bergen it’s been 5.6C, compared to 1.3C on average. Even in the northern city of Tromsø, which has recorded lots of snow this winter, temperatures are still much warmer than ususal: -o.3C instead of the normal -4.4C. Trondheim has been 6.4 degrees warmer than usual in January: 3.4C instead of -3C.
Then there are the remarkable oddities like the 19C (66.2F) recorded at Sunndalsøra in the county of Møre og Romsdal on January 2. Local residents were outdoors in shorts, and warm winter follows an unusually hot summer. Norway is now threatened by heat waves and drought, along with sudden, torrential rain and less snow. Bird counts have fallen, flowers can shoot up but then risk being frozen if cold weather does return.
“For plant life, this can have grave consequences,” Gislefoss said. As the days get noticeably longer, it has seemed like spring, but it’s not and shouldn’t be.
Maria Sand, a researcher at the Cicero Center for Internatioanl Climate Research in Norway, said it’s “frightening” how quickly climate change has been setting in. She points to two main reasons why January has been so mild: Climate change and “natural” variables. “On all the days when temperatures have been just over the freezing point, it has rained,” Sand told NRK. “Without climate change, it would have snowed.”
Winter one month shorter
She notes that there also were several “green winters” in the 1980s, and last year there was lots of snow in Oslo. Norway is also prone to variable weather, she said, “but when we study it all over a longer period, the winters have become a month shorter and two degrees warmer than they were in the 1960s.” She worries about the effect on flora and fauna. In addition to the wild reindeer’s problems, “the queen bee can wake up after the flowers have blossomed.” An earlier spring can cause more problems.
Zoologist Petter Bøckman at the University of Oslo warned that both animals and humans can be plagued to a much higher degree by the brown snails that can destroy gardens, ticks that can cause disease and pesty flies, while other insects can die out.
There’s no question that climate change is arguably the biggest topic of conversation in Norway at present, and even climate skeptics and politicians who have fought hard to drill for more oil and tax car use less are begrudgingly admitting that climate change is real. All of Norway’s parties now address climate change on their political platforms, but tackle it from albeit different angles. Even the fiercest critics of political inaction on climate change, like Anja Bakken Riise of Framtiden i våre hender (The Future in our Hands), now see a “green wind blowing over the government.”
Asked whether she agrees, Norway’s new Oil & Energy Minister Tina Bru from the Conservative Party told newspaper Aftenposten that she thinks “there’s been a general increase in climate consciousness, and increasing engagement across all the political parties.”
That can be encouraging to researchers like Maria Sand at Cicero, who work with climate change every day: “It’s not something that will happen in the future. It’s happening now.”