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Why Germany is facing extreme winter weather this month

A mix of icy polar air in northern Germany and very mild spring air in the south will result in rare winter weather conditions. Here's what's forecast and why.

Why Germany is facing extreme winter weather this month
People enjoying the snow in Kiel on Thursday. Photo: DPA

What's happening?

Forecasters are predicting rare and difficult weather conditions in Germany starting this weekend.

Large amounts of snowfall is expected in the northern half of the country while it will rain in the south.

Over the weekend, temperatures will hover around freezing in the north and northeast during the day, dipping to -7C at night. In the south and southwest, the mercury could reach a very respectable 13C.

In the Berlin-Brandenburg region, 5 to 20 centimetres of snow is possible from Sunday to Monday – and even up to 40 cm in some parts of the region. 

And in the parts of Germany where the cold and warm air meet there's expected to be a lot of wind, which means that full-blown snowstorms may happen at an icy -5C.

It is still unclear whether the area of snowfall will spread between North Rhine-Westphalia and eastern Germany or from Münsterland via the Hanover area to Saxony.

Following the snow, at least a week of freezing permafrost on the ground is expected.

READ ALSO: Weird weather – temperatures between -7C and up to 20C expected in Germany at weekend

So why is this happening now?

According to experts, the conditions for this burst of cold air developed at the beginning of the year because there's an unusually unstable polar vortex at the moment.

In January, the polar vortex – a huge low-pressure area that circulates in the stratosphere far above the Arctic in winter – collapsed.

As a result, the jet stream – a band of strong winds in the atmosphere – also became unstable.

It began to lurch, allowing cold air to penetrate far to the south. A stable polar vortex, on the other hand, normally ensures a strong jet stream that holds the cold air together over the Arctic, thus clearing the way for warmer air masses from the Atlantic to reach Europe.

The tweet by the German Weather Service (DWD) below shows the split in weather conditions across Germany on Friday.

Climate researcher Marlene Kretschmer, of the University of Reading in the UK, told the Berlin Tagesspiegel newspaper that as far as can be judged at present, the cold air is related to the state of the polar vortex.

“We know that the probabilities for such weather situations increase very strongly when the polar vortex is weak,” Kretschmer said.

After the collapse of the polar vortex in early January, this kind of event occurred twice more. “After a short recovery, the vortex became weak again – these weak phases favour weather situations like we are currently seeing,” she said.

The vortex split, causing more unstable weather which some meteorologists and scientists expect to happen again. Kretschmer currently expects a shift of the vortex, but the effects on the weather are similar.

The collapse of the polar vortex is accompanied by a sudden warming in the stratosphere at an altitude of 10 to 50 kilometres – a so-called major warming characterised by easterly winds at high altitudes. This increases the likelihood of icy polar air from the Arctic to the south.

These kinds of situations are observed about seven times in 10 years, and in extreme cases, such as in 2013, Germany can experience severe frost, even permafrost, into April.

But the consequences of the event could also hit Scandinavia and regions east of it harder.

In Western Europe, there are many other drivers of the weather. “In Germany, the effect of weak polar vortex phases varies greatly from event to event,” Kretschmer said.

Effects can last up to two months

Extreme events in the stratosphere are relatively short-lived, but they can affect our weather for several weeks, say forecasters.

Kretschmer is also concerned with the question of whether global warming could contribute to an accumulation of extreme winters. To what extent climate change plays a role in the current event is difficult to judge, she said.

Some forecasters now believe the polar vortex will not recover this winter, which would allow cold waves to continue into spring.

Kretschmer, however, thinks it is too early to make these statements. At the moment, it's unclear how long the extreme weather will continue and affect Germany.

Meanwhile, some weather experts have said there is the potential for a repeat of Europe's catastrophic winter of 1978/79, but say it's too early to jump to conclusions.

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INSIDE GERMANY

Inside Germany: ‘Ampel’ makeover and can Euro 2024 bring Germans together?

From how the Euros are providing a sense of relief in Germany amid heightened tensions to a traffic light transformation in Frankfurt and lucky chimney sweeps, here's what we've been talking about this week.

Inside Germany: 'Ampel' makeover and can Euro 2024 bring Germans together?

Inside Germany is our weekly look at some of the news, talking points and gossip in Germany that you might not have heard about. It’s published each Saturday and members can receive it directly to their inbox by going to their newsletter preferences or adding their email to the sign-up box in this article.

The Euros are bringing Germans together – but tension remains 

Whichever way you look at it, it’s been a turbulent few years. In the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, sparking forced migration, an energy crisis and fears over war spreading in Europe. 

In Germany, the cost of living crisis has been gripping residents for years, resulting in increased strike action and protests. Meanwhile, the economy has tanked, support for the coalition government is falling dramatically, division remains over war in the Middle East and the the far-right has climbed in the polls. At the recent European parliament elections, Alternative for Germany (AfD) took second position in the national vote. 

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With these unresolved issues, you might think that Germany would struggle to come together to organise the UEFA Euro 2024 tournament this summer.

But so far, Deutschland has been a fantastic host.

The scenes of fans from different countries gathering in German cities and mixing with locals have been joyous to see. 

Games and logistical matters are taking place without any major problems (at least most of the time).

Hammering Scotland 5-1 in the opening game may have brought Germans a much needed boost. Seeing residents from all walks of life huddle around TVs on streets or attend fan zones to cheer on their team has felt like something we’ve all needed after such heavy years. 

Perhaps if the German team goes far, it will unite people even more. 

But the tension is still around. 

A recent survey by broadcaster WDR’s Sport Inside, found that one in five respondents would prefer if the German national team had more “white” players, highlighting racist attitudes. 

It comes after German partygoers were filmed singing “foreigners out!” on the holiday island of Sylt. 

The Euros are providing much-needed light relief in Germany right now – but football won’t fix everything. 

Frankfurt Ampelmann gets makeover

Football figures on the traffic lights in Frankfurt to celebrate Euro 2024.

Football figures on the traffic lights in Frankfurt to celebrate Euro 2024. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Andreas Arnold

Football fever is gripping the nation – and Frankfurt has updated its traffic lights or Ampeln to to celebrate

Anyone walking through central Frankfurt might spot the Ampelmann (traffic light man) giving a red card or kicking the ball – depending on the colour. 

German cities are known for their unusual traffic light figures. 

The most famous are the Ampelmännchen (little traffic light men) in Berlin. These were first created in what was then East Berlin back in 1961 and now appear on various traffic lights in the centre of the German capital. 

Germany in Focus

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Lucky chimney sweeps

My building recently received a visit from a lovely Schornsteinfeger (chimney sweep) to check our boilers were in working order. 

It reminded me that seeing a chimney sweep is meant to bring good luck in Germany. 

That’s because they traditionally came to homes to clean out chimneys, removing soot and dirt, which would help ward off the possibility of fires (as well as unwanted evil spirits). 

A chimney sweep on a roof on Maulbronn, Baden-Württemberg in 2023.

A chimney sweep on a roof on Maulbronn, Baden-Württemberg in 2023. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd Weißbrod

They may not actually be going into chimneys and getting covered in soot these days but they’re still providing maintenance and checking on various heating systems which can only be a Glücksbringer (lucky charm).

You’re supposed to get even more luck if you touch a chimney sweep – for example by shaking their hand or twisting one of their silver buttons – but you should probably ask them first. 

If you see a Schornsteinfeger on New Year’s Day or on your wedding day it’s meant to be even luckier.

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