New Year’s is a major family holiday in Russia, with people around the country taking the week off to celebrate. Residents of Moscow may have expected to ring in 2020 amid frigid temperatures, as is typically the case for Russia’s capital city. But this year, Moscow has been experiencing unseasonably warm weather—and it is conspicuously devoid of snow.
To counter this conundrum and bolster the festive mood, officials have taken to trucking artificial snow into parts of the city center, according to Ivan Nechepurenko of the New York Times. The “snow” was sourced from ice cut at skating rinks, and most of it melted soon after it was deposited among Moscow’s Christmas trees and light decorations.
Officials said the snow was being used to build a hill for snowboarders, and some of the fluffy stuff was also dispatched to the city’s festive displays. Social media users mirthfully captured photos of a sad, melting pile of snow that appeared to be guarded by fences in the Red Square. Some, according to the Guardian’s Andrew Roth, observed the irony of carting snow into a city that spends millions of dollars each year on its removal. And on Monday night, a blizzard seemed to render the artificial snowfall unnecessary by bringing a gust of flurries to the city’s streets—though forecasts suggest that this snow will melt away before the New Year.
Though some have mocked the effort, Moscow’s plan to counteract its lack of snow points to the serious effects of climate change on Russia. This year, the country experienced its hottest weather on record. On December 18, temperatures in the capital climbed to around 42 degrees Fahrenheit, surpassing a record for the month that was set in 1886.
“It’s not normal at all,” one Alexander Stanko told Roth while viewing holiday decorations near the Kremlin. “Winters used to be a lot harder here.”
This winter has been so warm that brown bears at the Bolsherechensky Zoo in the Omsk region were roused out of hibernation, and flowers began blooming prematurely at Moscow State University’s Apothecary Garden, reports Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post. Earlier this month, dozens of polar bears descended on a village in Russia's remote Chukotka region; melting ice had disrupted the animals’ hunting patterns, CNN’s Radina Gigova reported at the time, and the hungry bears were looking for food.
Across the northern landscape of Siberia, rapidly thawing permafrost is driving people from their homes; entire neighborhoods are falling into rising rivers, arable land is declining, and the herding of cattle and reindeer is becoming more difficult due to the destruction of pasture land, according to Anton Troianovski and Chris Mooney of the Independent. What’s more, melting permafrost across the Arctic is releasing methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which will accelerate global warming, scientists say.
Experts agree that these climate consequences are largely being driven by human activities, particularly those that cause the emission of greenhouse gases. Russia, one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, recently adopted the Paris Agreement to combat climate change. But in the face of pressure from businesses, the country’s climate change legislation was “watered down” to exclude carbon emissions quotas and a national carbon trading system, Khurshudyan of the Post reports.
In his end-of-year news conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that the country is warming 2.5 times faster than the average of the planet.
“As you know, Russia is a northern country, and 70 percent of our territory is located in the north latitudes,” he said. “Some of our cities were built north of the Arctic Circle, on the permafrost. If it begins to thaw, you can imagine what consequences it would have. It’s very serious.”
But Putin stopped short of attributing the shifting climate to human-driven greenhouse gas emissions, claiming that “nobody really knows” the cause of global climate change—a perspective that is not limited to the nation’s president.
“Russians believe in [global warming],” Vasily Yablokov, projects coordinator at Greenpeace, tells Khurshudyan. “They see the climate change. But they, like Putin, don’t know why it’s happening.”
“Not everybody connects it,” Yablokov notes, “but a lot of people tie this to being caused by humans.”