Air travelers across the continent face delays and cancellations, while police in some parts of the UK are warning people not to leave their homes unless necessary.
- England: Most major airports remain open but a large number of flights are delayed or canceled. East Midlands Airport is closed until at least 2pm.
- Mainland Europe: Geneva Airport was briefly closed Thursday morning but departures have now resumed. The first landings are expected Thursday afternoon. Some other airports across Europe, including Montpellier in France, are also experiencing disruption.
‘Risk to life’
Residents in red zones are warned not to make any unnecessary journeys. Winds of up to 70 miles per hour are expected Thursday and potential blizzard conditions overnight into Friday, according to the Met Office.
Up to 50 centimeters (20 inches) of snow is expected in parts of Wales by Friday morning.
Storm Emma is expected to hit Ireland particularly hard. A red weather warning was issued for the whole of the Republic of Ireland late Wednesday night and is valid until Friday afternoon.
Both British Airways and Ryanair, which have canceled multiple flights to and from British airports, said they are working to rebook customers on future flights.
Rail travelers in the UK are also facing significant disruption. London’s Paddington Station was closed temporarily Thursday morning because of a build-up of ice and snow on the platforms and multiple routes across the country are affected.
Hundreds of people were stranded on a motorway in Scotland Wednesday night and ice and snow are continuing to cause chaos on the nation’s roads.
National Grid UK, which manages the distribution of electricity and gas across England and Wales, said Thursday there were gas supply losses overnight “due to the extreme weather conditions” and issued a gas deficit warning.
Why is this extreme weather happening?
Much of Europe has been blanketed in snow this week, with rare falls of the icy stuff in the south of France, Spain and Italy.
Now and again — perhaps six times every decade — the vortex gets split in two, a phenomenon known as sudden stratospheric warming.
The disruption allows icy Arctic air to spread further south, often lowering temperatures across much of the northern hemisphere.
“That big mass of Arctic air — which is normally trapped over the poles, so it’s really freezing cold — is then able to spill further south,” Clark told CNN.
Storm Emma, currently making its way across the UK from the southwest, is a normal phenomenon for this time of year, and would usually result in heavy rainfall.
But as it meets the freezing polar air swirling around much of Britain, the storm is much more likely to dump its moisture as snow, Clark explained.
While mainland Europe “will still be affected by Emma… we (in the UK) are probably going to take the brunt of the moisture,” said Clark.
Conditions are expected to improve by the end of the weekend, but average temperatures across the UK could remain lower than normal over the next month as the polar air gradually returns to the Arctic.
Clark expects Europe to feel the effects of disruptions to the vortex more often as the global climate continues to warm.
“It’s very difficult to say for sure whether this one event was caused by climate change,” he said, “but as the climate warms, we expect the polar vortex to get weaker…. We will then see more of these sudden warmings.”
Precise predictions are difficult, however, due to the rate at which the climate is changing. “It’s changing faster than we can collect data on it,” Clark said.