Spain registered record-breaking temperatures this week and areas of the Italian Alps are forecast to reach up to 15C above the seasonal average in the coming days as much of Europe experiences an anomalously warm start to the new year.
In Bilbao, northern Spain, temperatures hit 24.7C, a high not seen since record-keeping began in 1947. In Segovia, near Madrid, 22.7C was recorded, the highest since 1920, and nearby Avila reached 20.2C, its highest since 1983.
“These high temperatures are not normal,” said Rubén del Campo, a spokesperson for the state meteorological agency AEMET. “These are temperatures that you would normally see in the month of April.”
He attributed the year-end heat to a mass of hot air over Spain combined with high pressure. “It’s a normal phenomenon that we do see, but what’s strange this time is the high temperatures we’re seeing.”
Scientists have long predicted that the climate crisis and global heating would lead to more frequent extreme weather, although random extreme events occur naturally.
The high-pressure anticyclone has shifted to France and Italy, and alpine rescuers have warned of a risk of avalanches.
Luca Mercalli, a meteorologist, said: “At the moment it is about 15C in areas of the Alps at an altitude of 1,600 metres and is not hitting zero beneath 4,000 metres. It hasn’t even been freezing at night – the temperature has not dropped below 10 degrees, and this is very unusual.”
Temperatures in some of Italy’s best-known ski resorts, including Cortina d’Ampezzo and Courmayeur, are forecast to be 13-15C above the seasonal norm on New Year’s Day, and the balmy weather is expected to linger until 3 January.
Ski resorts at an altitude of up to 2,000 metres are bereft of snow. “And they can’t produce artificial snow as the temperature is too warm,” said Mercalli.
Italy’s alpine rescue service has advised skiers to regularly check weather bulletins owing to the risk of avalanches. “The elevated temperature combined with strong winds create the conditions for avalanches,” Mercalli said.
The rest of Italy is also experiencing abnormally warm conditions, with a high of 18C expected in Rome on Saturday and 22C in the Sicilian city of Catania by the middle of next week.
In Spain, the high temperatures cap off a year that began with a deadly snowstorm that blanketed large parts of the country in snow and brought Madrid to a standstill.
“It’s been a year of extremes,” Del Campo said. The snowstorm left some municipalities grappling with temperatures as low as -25C, while days later the coastal city of Alicante hit 30C.
“We’ve never seen -25 and nearly 30C in the same month,” said Del Campo. “That’s not something we’ve ever seen in Spain.”
Italy also experienced extreme weather events in 2021, with Siracusa in Sicily believed to have broken the European record for the highest temperature, reaching 48.8C in August.