Europe is likely to experience a colder, drier and less windy early winter, according to meteorologists, as the UK energy regulator warned there is a “significant risk” of gas shortages this winter.
The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), an independent intergovernmental agency, cautions that predicting winter conditions is “notoriously difficult” in early October. But it says a cold, still and dry snap in November and December, which would worsen the cost of living crisis, is more likely, because of this year’s La Niña – a powerful weather pattern influenced by cooler temperatures in the Pacific.
Carlo Buontempo, the director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, which is run by the ECMWF on behalf of the EU, said: “La Niña tends to cause disruption to westerly winds, creating high pressure over Europe, which is what the models are showing for the beginning of winter.
“In these conditions, there is a chance of easterly winds leading to lower than usual temperatures. There is a higher than usual chance of having a cold outbreak at the beginning of winter.”
But he cautioned that more reliable data on what would influence winter conditions would only become available in three to four weeks.
The forecast comes as Ofgem warned this winter could see of a “significant risk” of gas shortages, which could also hit electricity supplies.
In a letter first reported by the Times, the watchdog said that “due to the war in Ukraine and gas shortages in Europe, there is a significant risk that gas shortages could occur during the winter 2022-23 in Great Britain. As a result it is a possibility that GB could enter into a gas supply emergency.”
Ofgem’s head of wholesale market management, Grendon Thompson, said a gas supply emergency could force gas-fired power stations to close. Rules governing the energy industry mean that any plants that are cut off would then have to pay large penalties for failing to deliver electricity.
In a request to modify existing rules, the energy producer SSE highlighted the large imbalance charges and credit-cover requirements that generators face if they are forced to switch off. Thompson accepted SSE’s request to urgently examine the risks related to rules.
Buontempo pointed out that in previous years gas prices had risen or fallen on the basis of midterm forecasts – but only those made in early November when winter predications could be made with greater certainty.
“What the models show at this stage is a slightly higher chance than usual of having a cold outbreak in November and December,” he said. “We are using data coming from the UK’s Met Office and also Météo-France, the Deutscher Wetterdienst, the CMCC in Italy and contributions from Japan, Canada, and the US.
All these models show a higher than usual pressure at the beginning of winter in Europe. “The fact that all the models shows a disruption in the westerly flows give us some confidence.”
Buontempo said if forecasts were correct, the colder temperatures would increase the reliance on gas, while stiller and dryer conditions would reduce the contributions of wind and hydro-electric power. Solar power would also be boosted if the forecast was correct, he said.
The only good news was that in a typical La Niña year, weather patterns tended to change in mid-winter to bring warmer westerly winds for the later half of the season, Buontempo said.
To underline the uncertainty the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology is predicting that, taken as a whole, this winter could be milder than average based on predicted temperatures from November to February.
Tom Morgan, a forecaster at the Met Office, said there was a “possibility of a La Niña winter unfolding”. But he added: “Whether that actually results in a cold winter for the UK is still very uncertain. Sea temperatures around the UK are well above average at the moment.”
Buontempo said higher sea temperatures would not warm Europe if the wind changed and brought colder air from central Asia and Siberia.
• This article was amended on 4 October 2022 to remove a suggestion that the ECMWF is a European Union agency. The EU does, however, provide funding for ECMWF work such as the Copernicus Climate Change Service.