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Climate change Russia

Russia's climate

The most well known feature of the Russian climate is its very cold winter, brought about by the country’s high latitudes (40-75°N), vast land mass and lack of any topographic obstructions to protect it from arctic winds sweeping across its long, north-facing and often frozen coastline. The country is bounded by high mountains along its southern and eastern flank but the west is exposed to occasional winter incursions of milder Atlantic air, so that winters become progressively more severe eastwards (10).

The extreme continental nature of the Russian climate means that the difference between mid-winter and mid-summer monthly mean temperature is large and typically at least 30°C, so that summers are warm even, for a short time, within the Arctic Circle (10).

The transition from winter to summer and from summer back to winter is very quick so that effectively there are only 2 seasons over most of Russia (10).

Annual precipitation is mostly not particularly high and is spread throughout the year with a summer convective peak. Examples of annual average precipitation are 690 mm at Moscow but only 400-500 mm further east at Chelybinsk, Novosibirsk and Irkutsk. Most winter precipitation in Russia falls as snow but this, though frequent, is rarely very heavy and strong winds often sweep the ground bare of snow (10).

Average January monthly temperatures vary between 0 and -5°C (Northern Caucasus) and between –40 and -50°C (Republic Saha, Yakutia) where the minimal temperatures reach -65-70°С. Average monthly temperatures of July vary from 1°C at northern coast of Siberia to 24-25°C in Prikaspijskaya lowland. The greatest amount of precipitation falls out in mountains of Caucasus (up to 2,000 mm per year), in the south of the Far East (up to 1,000 mm), and also in a forest zone of East European plain (up to 700 mm). The minimum precipitation falls at semiarid areas of Prikaspijskaya lowland (about 150 mm per year) (11).

Air temperature changes until now

The average annual temperature in European Russia currently rises at a rate of 0.4-0.5 °C every 10 years (17). Summertime warming detected in the Moscow region in recent decades is not solely due to an increase in the number of hot days (by 5% per decade since the mid 1970s), but also due to a decrease in the number of cold days (by 6% per decade since the mid 1970s). In 1981–2012 the number of summer seasons with extremely hot days has doubled with respect to earlier period (1949–1980). No statistically significant systematic changes have been found in duration of the extreme events: the long-lasting hot events of 2010 and 2011 appear to stand alone rather than being manifestations of a general trend (13). 

According to observations provided by the meteorological network of Roshydromet, the warming in Russia was 1.29°C for the last 100 years (1907–2006), whereas global warming for the same period was 0.74°C according to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. Furthermore, the mean warming in the country was 1.33°C for the period 1976–2006. The annual maxima and minima of daily surface air temperature increased, and the difference between them decreased (minima grew faster than maxima). The number of frosty days decreased.

Data show that during 1990-2000 the mean annual surface air temperature increased by 0.4°C: during the previous hundred years, the increase was only about 1.0°C. Warming is more evident in winter and spring and more intensive east of the Urals (7).

Warming expressed in terms of annual means is mainly due to substantive increases of temperatures in the colder periods. In warm periods, the increase in temperature trend is typical only for the Eastern Siberia and the north-western regions of Russia (except for the White Sea region). Minor cooling or no clear tendency is observed for the remaining territory (11).

In Russia, as a northern country, the warming is growing faster, than for the Earth as a whole. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising at almost double the rate of the global average. In many inland Arctic regions, surface air temperatures have warmed 0.2°C per decade over the past 30 years (7). In some regions of Russia, in particular in Siberia, the acceleration rate of annual-mean temperature is more than 4 times higher than that of the global temperature. 2007 was the warmest year in Russia according to the data of Roshydromet from 1891 until that year. Moreover it was the warmest year overland of the Northern Hemisphere according to the data of CRU from the middle of the 19th century (2). In 2010, Cen­tral and Western Russia suffered its worst heat wave since records began, with the July temperature in Moscow beating the previous record by 2.5 °C (12).

Over a large part of the territory of Russia the increase of the vegetation period was noted. It is related to both the earlier beginning of spring and later autumn. At the same time the opposite tendencies are revealed in a number of regions (2).

Observations show that winter has shortened by 1-2 weeks in the European part of the former Soviet Union during the period 1881-1995 (22).

The 2010 heat wave

The western Russia heat wave in 2010 led to severe socioeconomic impacts and was likely the hottest summer in the last 500 years in eastern Europe/ western Russia (15).

The severe 2010 heat wave in western Russia was influenced both by natural climate variability and anthropogenic climate change (14). Climate variability led to extremely low soil moisture content. Evapotranspiration was very low due to the very dry soil that cannot provide enough water to evaporate. As a result, little of the available surface net radiation was used for evaporation (and turned into latent heat flux) and most of it was turned into surface warming (sensible heat flux).

Looking at the 2010 heat wave, the dry soil moisture alone has increased the risk of a severe heat wave in western Russia sixfold, while climate change from 1960 to 2000 has approximately tripled it. The combined effect of climate change and the extremely low soil moisture yields a 13 times higher heat wave risk. Thus, internal climate variability causing the dry 2010 soil moisture conditions formed a necessary basis for the extreme heat wave (14).

Anthropogenic climate change increased the probability of occurrence of this heat wave. However, the magnitude of the heat wave was within the range of natural climate variability. Even though climate change had an influence, its contribution to this heat wave magnitude was small compared to that of natural variability (see also 16).

Urban heat island

The urban heat island effect has been studied for Fennoscandia, the northern half of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and including the adjacent part of Russia. This study includes all 57 cities located above 64° N in this region. Data covering the period 2001-2017 show that the mean urban heat island intensity is found in the range 0-5°C. The intensity is larger for the largest cities of Murmansk and Oulu (3-5°C) (23).

Precipitation changes until now

Due to both a complicated physical nature of phenomenon and heterogeneity of observations, precipitation changes are evaluated with less confidence than surface air temperature changes. It was found that annual precipitation over Russia increased (7.2 mm/10 years) for the period 1976–2006 (1). However, considerable differences were observed in patterns of region precipitation changes. The most essential changes are the increase in spring precipitation (16.8mm/10 years) in the western and northeastern regions of Siberia and in the European part of Russia (EPR) (1). Between 1960 and 2003, over western Russia there has been a widespread increase in annual total precipitation (10). There has been a decrease in precipitation over the eastern regions of the country, though (11).

The data for the Northern Hemisphere in the second half of the 20th century show that in the European territory of Russia (excluding the northern regions) a trend of increasing of the number of days with heavy rainfall (snowfall) prevails. For the northern and southern European regions of Russia (the Caucasus and Cuban) and in central Siberia the maximal number of successive days without precipitation is decreasing (3).

Changes in snow depth until now

Satellite measurements for the last 30 years (since about 1980, red.) showed that snow cover considerably decreased in the Northern Hemisphere in spring and summer. In the western regions of European Russia, Transbaikalia, and Chukci region there was a tendency for a decrease in snow depth. The main reason of such a change in recent decades was the surface air temperature rise (1).

In the former Soviet Union, over the period 1936–1983, snow accumulation decreased in the southeastern part of European Russia, and increased in the major part of the country, especially at higher latitudes in Siberia (4).

Mean winter snow cover depth declined during the 20th century at most stations in European Russia (by 10-15 cm in some parts) and other eastern European countries (5). Changes in mean winter snow depth are related to changes in winter temperature and precipitation. An increase in winter air temperature has been observed in the mid-latitudes of European Russia, resulting in a decrease in the number of days with snow cover in those regions where temperature is the main factor determining snow cover. The increase in precipitation in the 20th century observed at mid- and high latitudes in Europe increases winter snow accumulation in regions where winter temperature remains constantly well below 0°C (5).

Changes in sea ice cover until now

Long-term variation of sea ice extent is a good indicator of climate change in the Arctic. Satellite observations have shown a steady downward trend in sea ice for the last two decades. Since the beginning of satellite observations in 1979 the minimum seasonal sea ice area observed in September every year has been decreasing by 9% per decade, and in September 2007 ice cover had a minimum value ever recorded, 4.3 million km2 (1).

Changes in ice cover of rivers until now

An analysis of ice events in rivers of the Russian territory of the Baltic Sea drainage basin has shown that, over the course of the second half of the 20th century, the start of ice events came 10–15 days later and the complete ice melt occurred 15–20 days earlier compared with the 1950s. The duration of the complete ice coverage in rivers in the north of this area became 25–30 days shorter, while in the southern rivers this period was reduced by 35–40 days (6).

The maximum thickness of the ice cover decreased by 15–20% by the end of the 20th century in comparison with 30–40 years earlier. Similarly, a strong negative trend in the ice cover duration (decreasing by 0.5–0.9 day/year on average) has been observed for some lakes in the Polish and Russian parts of the Baltic drainage basin during the past 40–50 years. A negative trend in the maximum ice cover thickness has also been established for Polish, Russian, and Finnish study lakes. On average, this negative trend is estimated at 0.2–0.6 cm/year (6).

Glacier changes until now

Glacier reductions in Russia in the second part of the twentieth century, due to changes in air temperature and precipitation, range from 10.6% (Kamchatka) to 69% (the Koryak Highlands). This was concluded from a review of mountain glacier change estimates in continental Russia over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The differences in the rate and the direction of glacier changes depend on local orographic and climatic features (21).

Air temperature changes in the 21st century

The increase in annual mean temperature is expected to be much larger in Russia than the global warming. By 2020, its growth will exceed the multi-model spread (standard deviation) which will be 1.1 ± 0.5°C with respect to the period 1980–1999. By the middle of the century, the temperature rise will be even larger (2.6 ± 0.7°C), particularly in winter (3.4 ± 0.8°C). In the southern and northwestern regions of European Russia, the rise of the lowest daily temperature minima is expected to be 4–6°C. The rise of daily temperature maxima will not exceed 3°C. Thus, the annual difference between the highest and lowest daily temperatures will decrease for all Russia and particularly in the European part of Russia. In Siberia and the Far East the number of frosty days will decrease by 10–15 days and in the EPR by 15–30 days.

Projected changes in average annual temperature by 2100 compared with1960-1990, according to an ensemble of results of different models and the A1B emission scenario, are higher over northern parts of the country, with increases of above 5.5°C in the Arctic regions. In central parts of the country, increases range between around 4.5-5.5°C, and in southern and western regions, increases lie in the range of 3.5-4°C. There is moderate agreement between the models over most of Russia (10).

According to calculations based on a regional climate model and two different emission scenarios, wintertime average daily temperatures in the period 2071–2100 are simulated to increase with respect to the period 1961–1990 from 3° to more than 7ºC in east Europe and Russia depending on which emission scenario and which driving global model is used (8). The warming in the cold end of the temperature distribution is even larger. The strongest warming occurs on cold days.

The strong increase in wintertime temperature in east Europe and Russia is probably connected to the reduction of the snow cover in the scenario runs. The mechanisms involved are feedback processes involving temperature, snow cover and albedo. With decreasing snow cover the albedo becomes lower. The lower albedo implies that more shortwave radiation is absorbed in the ground which in turn leads to higher surface temperatures. The largest reduction of the length of the snow season is calculated to be in a zone reaching from central Scandinavia through southern Finland and the Baltic countries and further towards the southeast into Russia (9).

The Arctic is extremely vulnerable to climate change. The region is warming much more rapidly than the global average. The IPCC report states that the winter warming of northern high latitude regions by the end of the century will be at least 40 percent greater than the global mean, based on a number of models and emissions scenarios. Temperature increases for the central Arctic are projected to be about 3-4°C during the next 50 years. Even an optimistic scenario for projecting future greenhouse gas emissions yields a result of a 4°C increase in autumn and winter average temperatures in the Arctic by the end of this century (7).

Future intensity of heat waves similar to the one of 2010

The 2010 heat wave in eastern Europe and Russia ranks among the hottest events ever recorded in the region. It was likely the hottest summer in the last 500 years in this part of the world. There were over 50,000 extra heat-related deaths, and economic losses were more than US$15 billion (15).

In addition to the widespread, anticyclonic conditions that led to this heat wave, depletion of soil moisture was a crucial driver behind the extreme heat. Evaporation from the soil and transpiration by plants was very low due to the very dry soil. As a result, little of the sun’s radiation was used for evaporation and transpiration, and thus turned into a latent heat flux that cools the surface. Instead, most of the sun’s radiation was turned into surface warming (14).

The low soil moisture conditions were a necessary basis for this extreme heat wave. Still, under present climate conditions, soil moisture levels are generally high enough, and surface evaporation is strong enough to cap maximum summer temperatures (19). These constraints may weaken, however, under future warming (20), scientists warn in an article in Nature Climate Change (18). In future summers, soil moisture levels quickly decline after the start of summer, and the soil will be largely depleted of moisture long before the end of summer. Even an above-average wet spring will no longer be able to constrain summer temperatures under atmospheric conditions similar to those of the 2010 heat wave.

They simulated the atmospheric heat wave conditions of 2010, in a warmer world. They focused on 2075 under a high-end scenario of global warming (RCP 8.5). ‘Future mid-latitude heat waves analogous to the 2010 event will become even more extreme than previously thought’, they conclude, ‘with temperature extremes increasing by 8.4 °C over western Russia.’ Because of the disappearance of the evaporative cooling constraint, atmospheric conditions similar to those of 2010 will lead to much higher temperatures than the mean climate change effect (18).

Precipitation changes in the 21st century

By the middle of the century, winter precipitation is expected to increase all over the country, and in summer the sign of its change will depend upon the region considered. The region with precipitation decrease is clearly seen in the southern regions of the EPR and southern Siberia (1,2). In this period the increase in winter precipitation will far exceed the inter-model spread, particularly in the eastern regions of Russia. In summer, the standard deviation will remain large enough and, as a rule, will exceed mean changes in most regions of the country (1).

Projected changes in average annual precipitation by 2100 compared with1960-1990, according to an ensemble of results of different models and the A1B emission scenario, indicate an increase over almost the entire country. Increases of above 20% are projected in the north of the country, with most other regions projected to experience increases of between 10% and 20%. In the Caucasus region, projected precipitation change ranges from an increase of 5% to a decrease of 5%. Ensemble agreement over the changes is high over most of the country, but more moderate in parts of the southwest (10).

Changes in snow depth in the 21st century

Due to climate warming, a substantial reduction in snow cover is expected in most of the country. The increase in winter precipitation in the EPR will be due mainly to liquid phase, and in Siberia the major portion of additional precipitation will be in solid phase (1,2). Thus, in the EPR, the reduction in snow mass and the increase in winter runoff will occur, and in Siberia further accumulation of snow mass in winter and its more rapid melting in spring can be expected. This will result in more frequent and extensive flooding (1).

Trends of wintertime snow mass accumulation vary over the country. In European Russia (that is, Russia east of the Urals) and south of Western Siberia snow mass is expected to decrease compared with long-term mean values. By 2015 a 10-15 percent decrease is expected (7).

Changes in sea ice cover in the 21st century

Considerable reduction in ice covered area in the Arctic will continue during the 21st century. The maximum sea ice extent, which is normally observed in March, will continue to decrease by 2% per decade, and the minimum ice extent, which normally happens in September, will be reduced by 7% per decade relative to ice extent for the period 1910–1959 with a faster reduction in the area of multiyear ice in comparison with the seasonal ice area (1).

At the end of the 20th century the habitat of polar bear decreased significantly as a result of reduction in sea ice cover. In the 21st century, under further warming, the overall tendency will be the reduction of ice cover in the northern seas, although some periods of its increase and decrease at the regional scale may occur. An increase in the iceberg occurrence is possible during periods of warming, as well as degradation of the fast ice and erosion of the coastline (1).


The references below are cited in full in a separate map 'References'. Please click here if you are looking for the full references for Russia.

  1. Roshydromet (2008)
  2. Mokhov (2008)
  3. Kiktev et al. (2002), in:Mokhov (2008)
  4. Ye et al. (1998), Ye (2000), in: Bednorz and Kossowski (2004)
  5. Bednorz and Kossowski (2004)
  6. HELCOM (2007)
  7. US National Intelligence Council (2009)
  8. Räisänen et al. (2003), in: Kjellström (2004)
  9. Kjellström (2004)
  10. Met Office Hadley Centre (2011)
  11. Russian Federation, Interagency Commission of the Russian Federation on Climate Change (2002)
  12. WMO (2010); Barriopedro et al. (2011), both in: Coumou and Rahmstorf (2012)
  13. Zyulyaeva et al. (2016)
  14. Hauser et al. (2016)
  15. Barriopedro et al. (2011), in: Hauser et al. (2016)
  16. Otto et al. (2012), in: Hauser et al. (2016)
  17. Rushydromet (2015), in: Agafonova et al. (2017)
  18. Rasmijn et al. (2018)
  19. Fischer et al. (2007); Vautard et al. (2007); Seneviratne et al. (2010), all in: Rasmijn et al. (2018)
  20. Lenderink et al. (2007); Fischer et al. (2012), both in: Rasmijn et al. (2018)
  21. Khromova et al. (2019)
  22. Jaagus et al. (2003), in: Ruosteenoja et al. (2020)
  23. Miles and Esau (2020)