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Russia weathers disturbingly warm winter

In a country known for brutally cold winters, a spell of unseasonably warm weather has unnerved many people and caused experts to worry about the effects of global warming.
Russian Orthodox believers help a 8-year-old boy to get out of ice cold water last Friday after plunging him to celebrate Orthodox Epiphany in the town of Sestroretsk, 19 miles west of St. Petersburg, Russia.Dmitry Lovetsky / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It was one of Russia's traditional days for taking a dip and swimmers were complaining _ because it was too warm outside. Countless Russians every year mark the Orthodox Epiphany religious feast by plunging into water through holes in the ice and shivering vigorously in the frigid air. On Friday, the ice was either thin or absent and the air wasn't especially cold.

In a country known for brutally cold winters, a spell of unseasonably warm weather has unnerved many people and caused experts to worry about the effects of global warming.

While much of Siberia and the Russian Far East soldiers through the usual long and grindingly cold winter, people in the rest of the country have been lamenting abnormally high temperatures that have left many rivers free of ice, fields absent of snow and weather forecasters confused — but not without hope.

"I'm not ready to give up on winter just yet," said Gennady Yeltsev, deputy director of the Russian meteorological committee.

Last year, much of January was unusually cold, down to 22 below zero. This year, temperatures have generally stayed above freezing in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Believers marked Epiphany by dipping in lakes and rivers across the country, a practice they believe purifies the soul. Swimmers had to chip through the ice at Siberia's Lake Baikal, but bathers in St. Petersburg had temperatures reaching 44 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rain, not snow, showers
Umbrellas outnumbered fur coats at one Muscovite baptismal hole amid a driving rain more reminiscent of April than January.

Sergei Maximov, chairman of the Walrus Club of Serebryanny Bor, a Moscow neighborhood that includes the city's most popular beaches along the Moscow River, said some people were bothered by the temperatures that hovered above freezing, but he wasn't among them.

"I was the last one in, about four in the morning and the water was so soft, so soft," Maximov said. "The feeling you get is the same, warm or cold, a complete purge of all your sins."

Animals in many parts of Russia have seen their biological clocks thrown out of whack. At St. Petersburg's Leningradsky Zoo, two of five bears have come out of hibernation weeks ahead of time. Even the hedgehogs have insomnia this year.

Older Russians shake their heads reminiscing about how temperatures 58 degrees below zero helped stymie the Germans as they reached the outskirts of Moscow in 1941; grass was growing this week near the famous tank defenses north of the capital.

Russia's agriculture minister played down fears that the lack of a hard frost and snow cover would affect future crops. A hard frost helps improve soil structure, while the snow serves as a blanket for crops.

Warmer winters more often?
Sergei Gulev, a climate scientist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said global warming appears to be affecting how storms move across the North Atlantic, determining whether an Arctic blast is pulled into Russia or whether gale-force winds and warmer air push in from the Atlantic.

He said abnormally warm winters — which he said peasants a century ago called "a waif's winter" because it stunted crop growth — occurred every 10-15 years. Now they're happening every two or three years, and with more intensity.

"We can expect from climate predictions that this winter, the type we're having now, will be more and more frequent in the future," Gulev said.

Still, the warm temperatures haven't been all bad. Among those breathing a sigh of relief have been utility executives, who had warned about possible energy shortages if temperatures plummeted. And the warm weather also eases the burden on municipal heating systems.

And cooler weather is in the offing: Yeltsev said temperatures are forecast to fall in the Moscow region, possibly reaching 14 below by Wednesday or Thursday.