Climate Fact: Changes in Russia’s Snow Cover

Russia – host of the 2014 Winter Olympics – is the world’s largest country, spanning over six million square miles and 11 time zones. Due to its large size and because most of the land is over 200 miles from sea, Russia’s climate is mostly continental, meaning that it has large seasonal temperature contrasts with hot summers and cold winters. The wide variety of environmental conditions in Russia affects spatial snow distribution. Maximum snow accumulation ranges from 8-12 inches in European Russia to 39-47 inches over Eastern Siberia, Kamchatka and Sakhalin. The longest period of snow cover is recorded on the coast of the Northern Seas (more than 250 days), while the shortest is recorded on the coast of the Caspian Sea (less than 20 days).

Sochi is among the warmest cities to have hosted the Winter Olympics, and warm weather has impacted the quality and quantity of snow this year.  But how have Russia’s snow cover trends changed over time?

  • Snow cover extent over Russia decreased from 1965 to 1990, but this decreasing trend ceased over the last two decades.
  • Snow cover periods are shorter. The climatic record of the past 40 years indicates that the first snowfall occurs later and snowmelt occurs earlier over most of Russia.
  • Even with a reduction in snow cover extent and duration, snow depth and snow water equivalent (amount of water in snow) have increased over the last 45 years. Snow depth has increased up to three inches per decade for some regions such as Western Siberia. The number of days per year with snow depth above 7 inches has also increased. Snow water equivalent has increased up to 3.4 percent for areas such as eastern Siberia, and up to six percent per decade in the southern forest zone of west Siberia. This is contrary to what is occurring in Canada and Alaska, where these snow characteristics have shown decreases.
  • Permafrost – permanently frozen soil in the high latitudes – is thawing in the southern boundary of the permafrost zone in northern European Russia and West Siberia. More than half of Russia falls within permafrost zones and most permafrost observatories in Russia show substantial warming of permafrost over the last 20 to 30 years.

NASA Image: Olympic Snow.




















(Sources: Bulygina, O.N., P.Y. Groisman, V.N. Razuvaev, N.N. Korshunova. 2011. Changes in Snow Cover Characteristics Over Northern Eurasia Since 1966. Environmental Research Letters 6 045204. Accessed online 12 February 2014. and Bulygina, O.N., V.N. Razuvaev, N.N. Korshunova. 2009. Changes in snow cover over Northern Eurasia in the last few decades. Environmental Research Letters 4 045026. Accessed online 12 February 2014. and Romanovsky, V.E., D.S. Drozdov, N.G. Oberman, G.V. Malkova, A.L. Kholodov, S.S. Marchenko, N.G. Moskalenko, D.O. Sergeev, N.G. Ukraintseva, A.A. Abramov, D.A. Gilichinsky, A.A. Varsilev. 2010. Thermal State of Permafrost in Russia. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes 21:136-155. and Library of Congress. Russia: Climate. Accessed online 12 February 2014.

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