As a series of snowstorms choked the eastern US, winterstorm Xynthia has struck Europe, killing at least 50 people,mostly in France. Winds exceeding 90 MPH hit Portugal, thenturned up the Bay of Biscay, breaching sea walls andflooding towns in France so suddenly that many of thevictims were trapped on streets, in cars and in their homes.The storm moved on into central France, where it continuesto wreak havoc.

It comes during a winter of unprecedented snowfall in theUnited Kingdom and extreme cold extending well into southernEurope. This year, Rome received its heaviest snowfall since1986, and the UK has recorded its most extensive snowfall inrecent memory.

The UK Meteorological Office has issued flood warnings asXynthia is expected to unleash heavy rains over the country.There has already been one death, as a vehicle was sweptaway in a swollen river.

Meanwhile, in the United States, heavy snows continue topound the eastern half of the country, where Pittsburgh hasreceived 76.5 inches so far this winter, and New Yorkrecorded a record snowfall in Central Park.

While no single region is experiencing unprecedentedconditions, the fact that so much of the hemisphere isrecording such extremes at the same time is unusual. Inparticular, areas such as the US Eastern Seaboard, theAtlantic Coast of Europe and the United Kingdom, whoseclimates are controlled by the Gulf Stream, are experiencingespecially severe winters.

If the Gulf Stream, which has been slowing for the past 10years, has reached a point where it is no longer the primaryclimactic influence in this area, unusual weather extremeswill become the rule, with long, cold winters, violentsprings and falls, and short, hot summers. It is alsopossible that seasons without summers could occur.

The injection of large amounts of carbon dioxide intoEarth’s atmosphere by human activity has been the equivalentof a medium sized volcano in continuous eruption for roughlythe past 20 years, but the situation is extremely complex,with substantial amounts of carbon black reducing the amountof sunlight reaching the surface even as the CO2 increasesthe heat-holding profile of the atmosphere.

The result, as predicted by some climate change models, isthat dangerous weather extremes are becoming more common. Inthe past, profound climate change has unfolded very quickly,with recent evidence suggesting that Europe went from atemperate climate to the beginning of the last ice age injust three months.

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