During 2 weeks in January 2021 in Helsinki, I experienced the most beautiful winter days of my life. As a Dutch person, I do not have high standards with regard to winter weather. But from August 2020 on, I started studying in Helsinki. While the main reason for moving to Helsinki was the complete meteorology program and the high ranking of the university, the climate of Finland was a big upside too; the average temperature in summer is comparable to that in The Netherlands, while the winters are way colder.
Although the winters in Finland are way colder than in The Netherlands, due to climate change, winter weather is also not a given anymore in Southern Finland. Actually, Finland is one of the fastest warming places in Europe. In the winter of ’19/’20 for example, there wasn’t a single day with a measured snow cover in Helsinki and in all of 2020, there were only 2 ice days (days with a maximum temperature below 0°C). However, overall, there will still be (some) winter weather and compared with The Netherlands it will still be mostly cold.
The harshest winters that I experienced myself, in The Netherlands, were those of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. I specifically remember December 2010 (lots of snowfall) and February 2012 (snow and severe frost) very well. Furthermore I have memories of lots of snow in March 2005 and also late February/March 2018 was a fun episode of winter weather. My standards for winter weather are therefore, compared to the old generation, not so high.
There hasn’t been a single ‘Elfstedentocht‘ during my lifetime. I had to make do with stories from my (grand)parents about legendary Dutch winters such as in ’63, ’79 and ’97.
Back to Helsinki after the Holidays
On the 11th I would be going back to Finland, after spending the Christmas Holidays at my parental home. For more than a week in advance, the weather charts already showed lots of snow and a cold air outbreak over Finland that would occur exactly around the time I would come back home. As the 11th came closer, the forecast amount of snowfall only increased. Eventually, the day before I arrived, the Finnish Meteorological Institute called the upcoming snowfall event (about 40-50 cm snow that was forecast to fall in just 3 days time) an ‘exceptional event’, which by their definition means: a weather event that only happens once every 30 years.
On Monday I arrived in Helsinki. A (for Dutch standards) thick layer of snow was already covering the ground. About 10 centimeters of snow fell during that day and upon arrival it still snowed lightly. After a covid-test, I could leave the airport. Just before sunrise, I quickly enjoyed the snow. Because of self-isolation, I was not allowed to visit public places, but luckily, I was still allowed to go outside.
I also had the luck that university started again first a week after arrival back in Helsinki. Because of this, I had all the time to thoroughly enjoy the snow. The Monday of the arrival, it eventually stopped snowing, but it would start to snow again in the course of the following night. Most snow was forecast around noon on Tuesday. I stood up in time, so I could go out directly after sunrise. The first thing I noticed, is that I couldn’t get my window to close after waking up. I always sleep with the window open, but some snow blew between the frame and the window. The warmth from inside the room caused the snow to melt a little bit, and the cold air from outside caused it to turn to ice.
When I finally went outside, I stayed outside for almost all day. It was snowing consistently all day, mostly with an intensity between 1 and 2 centimeters per hour. The temperature was only 1 degree below 0 (Celsius), but due to a strong wind, it felt very cold. Between open fields, some serious snow drift was going on. Snow ploughs were coming and going constantly: a special weather day for me! It is noteworthy that daily life continued like it always has. People were outside on the streets and public transport kept driving. In The Netherlands, that would not be possible in such conditions.
It kept snowing into the following night and also on Wednesday during the day snow kept falling, mostly in the morning. It still was quite windy too, which made it hard to estimate the total amount of snowfall. In some spots, there was 15 centimeters of snow, while in other spots, out of the wind, about 60 centimeters of snow gathered. Overall, the snow cover was very thick, so I estimated the total amount of snowfall to be about 40 centimeters. This is in accordance with the official measurements. In the center of Helsinki, which is located closer to the coast, the Kaisaniemi weather station reported ‘only’ 38 centimeters of snow. I live between two weather stations located further inland (Weather station Malmi Airport and weather station Helsinki-Vantaa Airport) and those stations measured 41 and 58 cm, respectively.
Throughout Wednesday, the temperature decreased slowly but steadily, down to -9 in the evening. It was at this point that the ‘real cold’ arrived.
The most beautiful winter day ever
On Thursday morning, the sun could finally be seen again through some layers of clouds. I was outside early again, this time also to get a 2nd covid-test taken; after a 2nd negative test, I would not have to avoid public places anymore. While I was waiting outside the testing station, my hands were absolutely freezing, despite wearing gloves. It was around -13C and a nasty wind was blowing. Sometimes, a few thick snowflakes fell out of the sky, which was a special view since the blue air was constantly close by. The snow flakes were not numerous enough to thicken the snow cover, but it was beautiful anyway.
On the way back home, the skies were clearing up rapidly. The clouds disappeared almost instantly and the sky became crystal clear. After having some lunch, I went back outside straight away. Once outside, I experienced the most beautiful winter day ever.
The temperature kept sinking steadily throughout the day, at 15:00 in the afternoon it was already -15. From that moment on, not too long before sunset, the temperature started plummeting. The cold became ‘visible’ through diamond dust – tiny, glistening ice crystals that fall down while the sky is crystal clear – and arctic sea fog. Diamond dust only forms under very cold conditions, when a strong temperature inversion is present. It probably happens due to the mixing of warmer air with a larger amount of water vapor from above the inversion into the cold air. Consequently, the water vapor condenses directly into ice crystals.
I tried to capture all these phenomena and the spectacular sunset on camera, but my increasingly cold hands made making photos more and more difficult. In the meantime, my eyebrows, eyelashes, hat and buff started to get covered in a layer of rime/ice.
In the evening, a little before 20:00, the temperature sank to under -20°C. In the city center, the same happened later that evening. I quickly went outside once more to experience these incredibly low temperatures.
Waking up to -22.5 degrees Celsius
The Friday morning that followed was forecast to be the coldest moment of the week. The temperature was well below -20°C. The airport just north of Helsinki recorded a minimum temperature of -23.1, weather station Malmi, north of the city center, and Kaisaniemi, in the center, recorded -22.8 and -21.2, respectively. It was cold enough for boiling water to evaporate, condensate and freeze straight away after throwing it in the air, so I could give it a proper try for the first time in my life (see the video below).
Again, the sky was crystal clear and completely blue, so I went out again to enjoy the beautiful weather. Due to the extremely low temperatures and a tiny breeze, it was less comfortable outside than the day before. Especially my toes got freezing cold, despite wearing 3 pairs of socks. Not too surprisingly, the river close to where I live largely froze over – despite flowing quite rapidly. The arctic sea fog was visible even more clearly than the day before and the amount of ice on my eyelashes was larger than the day before too.
Towards the end of the afternoon and in the evening, it became quite cloudy – contrary to the weather forecast. Initially, the expectation was that the temperature would again drop below -20°C that night, but quickly it became clear that this wouldn’t be the case due to the increased cloudiness. The temperature increased to a maximum value of about -13. Surprisingly, a few snow showers passed over during the evening and night. Thick snowflakes fell down and again, a few centimeters of snow accumulated. Behind these showers, the sky cleared up and the temperature dropped rapidly again after all, which lead to minimum temperature just below -19 degrees on Saturday morning.
Ice skating in -18°C
On saturday morning, the mercury stuck around -18°C for a while. It was another beautiful morningwith crystal clear skies, lots of diamond dust (most I had ever seen in my life until then) and enormous amounts of rime on the plants and trees. I walked to the icerink (that in the summertime functions as a football field) to skate. Unfortunately, I couldn’t skate on the local lake, the ice quality was way too bad due to all the snow – the only downside of the massive amounts of snowfall.
During this morning, I noticed how quickly you adapt to the cold. I was not cold for a single moment and during the iceskating, I even took of my jacket because I got warm. Towards the end of the morning the winds picked up, which caused the rime to fall out of the trees: a beautiful sight!
During the afternoon I sat inside, since I had to work. The temperature did not get reach above -16°C and after 15:00, the temperature started to drop again. Already around 16:30, the temperature was below -20°C again, while that was the expected minimum temperature for that evening/night. It quickly became clear that the temperature would drop well below the forecast minima. During the evening, the temperature pended between -21°C and -23°C. Towards midnight, the temperature even dropped below -24°C for a while and after midnight the temperature stagnated around this incredibly low value for a bit. Just before sleeping, I went out once more, just to experience the cold. I had never before experienced such low temperatures. Weirdly enough, it didn’t at all feel that cold, probably because there was no wind at all. In the center of Helsinki, it was way less cold that night with a minimum temperature of ‘only’ -18.4°C. The weather stations close to were I lived measured minimum temperatures of -24.3°C and -24.5°C.
Ice skating on sea ice!
In the course of that cold night, it became foggy and the temperature steadily started to increase. When I left home in the early morning, it was about -15°C. Closer to the coast, where I met up with a Finnish friend, it was -13°C. We met up to skate on the sea ice, in de bay next to Arabianranta, which for me personally was an extraordinary activity. Never before I even stood on sea ice, let alone ice skating on it.
The ice quality was incredibly bad due to the extreme amounts of snow that fell on top of it. We were ‘walking on skates’ rater than actually ice-skating. Nevertheless, it was a special experience and the view with all the fog and rime was magical. With a pickaxe, we checked the thickness of the ice, to make sure it was safe enough to stand/skate on. Despite the horrible quality of the ice, it was more than thick and steady enough to stand on. The layer of brown-white snow ice was at minimum 10-15 cm thick, and below that there was a layer of black ice of about 10 centimeters. In some places, the ice was even thicker!
In the afternoon, I had to work again. It kept freezing the whole day. During the beginning of the afternoon, the temperature stayed below -10°C, but the maximum temperature was a little higher (-8°C).
With the start of a new week, the most intense cold started to fade. On Monday, the temperature again reached values of -10°C to -15°C, but that evening, the temperature rose to close to 0°C. The temperature increase was accompanied by intense snow showers with very thick snowflakes falling from time to time.
During the following days, the temperature rose above the freezing point every now and then. On Wednesday, the temperature dropped down to -10°C once more and on Thursday, another ice day followed. Also, it snowed heavily again on Thursday; 5-10 centimeters of fresh snow fell caused by an approaching warm front. Unfortunately, the snowfall was the precursor of the inevitable thaw, as the temperature rose above 0°C during the night to friday. It kept thawing and raining for a few days, which made a substantial part of the thick snowcover disappear quite rapidly.
It was however definitely not the end of the winter of 2021. It was just the end of the most beautiful winter days of my life.