The science behind Europe’s Siberian chill this week

Nice out. The A48 in the snow. Image: Getty.

The so-called “Beast from the East” arrived in the UK this week, bringing unusually cold weather – about 7°C colder than the historical average for this time of year. Wind chill is making temperatures feel particularly arctic.

So how did the Siberian gusts come to arrive on Europe’s doorstep?

The movement of air across the globe, and the weather it brings with it, is governed by three major influences: gravity, the sun, and something called the Coriolis effect. The influence of gravity is simple, constantly pulling air towards the Earth’s surface.

The rise and fall of the sun dictates whether the air stays there. During the day, radiation from the sun heats the Earth, warming air directly above the surface and causing it to rise, leaving behind a region of low pressure (a low density of air particles). As the air rises, it cools and spreads outwards.

This mass of air, now denser than the air below it, sinks back down under the force of gravity, and naturally flows back towards the lower pressure region of air, creating a cycle of air circulation. These circulating patterns of wind exist on an intercontinental scale, transporting heat all the way from the tropics to the poles.

However, thanks to the Coriolis effect – the deflection of objects moving in a straight path due to the Earth’s rotation – the winds do not travel directly north or south. To illustrate this effect, imagine a spinning top. Parts of the spinning top closer to the spindle rotate at slower speeds than parts further away, as they have less distance to travel to complete a full circle. Similarly, the equator has to travel much faster than the poles do as the Earth rotates. As air travels north from the equator, its extra momentum compared to the slower rotating land that it is moving over makes it curve across to the east, while air travelling to the south pole curves westward.

In the northern hemisphere, this interaction between the Coriolis effect and the circulation systems produces the northern polar jet stream: high altitude currents of air blowing eastwards at hundreds of miles per hour, moving weather systems around the globe. This causes the UK’s prevailing westerly and south-westerly winds, which usually draw weather systems in from the relatively warm Atlantic and shield us from colder air masses to the east.

The shape of the jet streams is not rigid – it follows a meandering path, much like a slithering snake. Occasionally, the jet stream path can become so twisted that it folds back upon itself, reversing the direction of the prevailing wind, and drawing in cold air from the east.


This is exactly what just happened. In the last couple of days, the bitterly cold front combined with water vapour in the air to carpet the country in a blanket of brilliant white.

As the warmth of the sun disappears each night, the cold can feel all the more biting. But in the absence of the sun’s heat, the smaller difference in temperature between air near the ground and higher up makes air circulate more slowly. This often creates calmer conditions that might just provide a brief respite from the extra chill of the wind. For this same reason, air passengers generally experience smoother flying conditions when flying at night.

If you live in the city however, your experience of the “beast” can vary wildly from place to place. Cities continue to produce heat at night, generating their own microclimates. This man-made heat keeps air moving, and warms city dwellers up more than those in rural areas. At the same time, the ordered formation of buildings in cities creates strong wind corridors that are certainly best avoided at times like these.

Wherever you are experiencing this freezing weather, you can at least be thankful that you are here on Earth. Wind circulation patterns on other planets produce far more extreme weather than we will ever experience. Visitors to Venus, for example, would experience some serious turbulence when approaching landing, as the 500°C difference between surface and cloud generates extreme air circulation.

The ConversationHowever, if you were lucky enough to touch down and survive the experience of the crushing pressure found on Venus’ surface, you would feel nothing more than a gentle breeze, thanks to the planet’s very slow rotation, weak Coriolis effect, and dense air. You might want to seek shelter though – at close to 460°C, suddenly a cold chill doesn’t seem so bad.

Gareth Dorrian, Post Doctoral Research Associate in Space Science, Nottingham Trent University and Ian Whittaker, Lecturer, Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.