Freak weather throws Balts into confusion

  • 2007-01-17
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon

UNDER THE WEATHER: The remarkably warm weather, with days of endless rain, has had a serious impact on some businesses in the Baltics.

RIGA - This winter has seen the highest temperatures on record in Europe. The unseasonably warm weather has also affected the Baltic states, hitting a wide range of businesses and leaving people with a mild sense of bewilderment. "[Our business] depends mostly on the weather, not on market conditions," says Andris Sprogis of the Latvian heating company Riga Heat, "we cannot sell more heat than people need."

The company, which provides approximately 80 percent of district heating services to Riga, suffered 16.5 percent lower profits in December 2006 compared with December 2005. This is the result of 30 percent lower sales, which are clearly a direct reflection of the unseasonably warm weather.

The heating industry has had to deal with unusual winter warmth before but never to this extent.
"Some years ago we had the same thing in January, but this is the worst in 10 years at least," Sprogis said. For the sake of his company, Sprogis looks forward to the cold weather: "We still hope that winter will come, that things will change by February."
The ski industry in the Baltic states is also hoping that the winter will quickly begin in earnest, having been hit particularly hard by the mild temperatures. As TBT recently reported, Estonia may be forced to shorten, or even cancel, an FIS world cup ski event scheduled to be held in Otepaa toward the end of January. This is due to temperatures that were an astounding seven degrees above average in December.

Downhill and cross-country ski resorts are also feeling the pinch. Resorts like Baili in Latvia and Kuutsemae in Estonia are struggling to cope with the distinctly strange lack of snow. Most resorts in the Baltic states have been unable to open for normal business so far this winter.

But not everyone wants the winter to come in a sudden flurry of snow and ice. A quick freeze could be disastrous for agriculture in the Baltic states. Every year, farmers plant what are known as "winter cereals," crops such as winter wheat and winter rye that, if they survive the winter, can provide a high yield crop in early spring.

Iveta Ozolina, who works for the Latvian Ministry of Agriculture, said the fate of these crops still depends on how the winter progresses. "It depends on further winter conditions later in January and February. Now the winter cereals are going strong, but if there is a freeze they will be damaged," Ozolina explains. When the snow arrives, and what sort of snow arrives, also makes a difference. A few centimeters of light, fluffy snow could help to insulate the soil and protect the crop from frost and cold.

While the agriculture of the Baltic states could survive the winter, as it has in the past, winter service industries are left with few options but to wait for lower temperatures. Enthusiastic ice-fishermen in the Baltic states, a sport that has always been popular here, are left wondering why temperatures have been so high. Data from the Latvian geology and meteorology agency shows that Latvian rivers have seen a decrease in ice cover of approximately three to five days over the past 30 years. The question on ice fishermen's minds is what will happen in future winters as lakes and rivers take longer to freeze over and what can the Baltic states do to slow the trend.

Climate change

Nearly all scientists agree that the world is in a state of global warming, which is broadly defined as an increase in the average temperature of the earth's atmosphere. The world has seen some of the warmest weather on record and, more locally, according to the Latvian Hydrometeorological Agency, air temperatures in Latvia have increased from an annual average of approximately 5.9 degrees Celcius to more than 7 degress Celcisus since 1880.

While there is some controversy as to the extent to which warming is caused by human influence, the International Panel for Climate Change concludes that "most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities," and that it is "likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."
Latvia and Lithuania have the lowest and second lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the EU, respectively, while Estonia has the third highest. All three Baltic states are working to reduce emissions under strict EU legislation. The Baltic states' climate change policies have been especially formed to fit EU and UN regulations.

On Jan. 10, EU Commission President Jose Barrosso called for a "post industrial revolution" in an effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by the year 2020. The 20 percent lower emissions are to be counter balanced by a 20 percent increase in renewable energies. The ultimate goal of the plan is to reduce emissions by 60-80 percent by the year 2050. Some of the proposed policy changes would have direct implications on EU citizens. For example, one proposal is that there may soon be a new tax scheme in which cars with high CO2 emissions will have to pay higher taxes.

Lithuania, despite already relatively low levels of greenhouse gas emissions, is being asked to cut their emissions in half. Lithuanian representatives have said that they are "very upset" by the new limits. In responding to the proposed climate change policy, Lithuania has also called for "more information… to be provided on the manner in which new entrants will be treated" as a condition for accepting the plan and implementing the caps. This response seems to imply that Lithuania may not feel it is getting a fair deal with the new plan.

Latvia is happier with its new emission allowance caps. Recent emissions data from Latvia was within range of the proposed allowance, according to the commission's report on Latvian climate policy (although it also cites concern over Latvia's expected industrial growth). A new cap for Estonia has not yet been set but is expected soon.

The unseasonable winter weather being experienced in the Baltic States has already had wide-ranging consequences. The ski and heating industries anxiously await the snow and freezing temperatures that are normal for this part of the world. Farmers are hoping that when the winter does finally arrive it won't be sudden enough to destroy their winter crops.
The Baltic states have been prompted into action on global warming and will now be doing their bit to try and improve matters. After all the freakish weather recently, most people will probably be relieved to hear it.