Coldest Winter in 1000 Years Cometh. Not.

This claim circulates in the internet and in many mainstream media as well: Scientists have allegedly predicted the coldest winter in 1,000 years for Europe. What is behind it? Nothing – no scientist has predicted anything like it. A Polish tabloid made up the story. An interesting lesson about today´s media.

By Stefan Rahmstorf and Olivia Serdeczny

We had read about it a few times and last Wednesday even were asked by German TV about the allegedly coldest winter in 1000 years, predicted by (depending on the source) Polish or Russian climatologists or meteorologists. Reason enough for us to take a closer look at the story behind the story.

It did not take much googling to find the source: various articles on the internet name the Polish scientist Michał Kowalewski, sometimes in the Russian spelling version of Mikhail Kovalevski. A few clicks later we arrive at the original article with Kowalewski´s quotes. Except that Kowalewski does not predict a record winter there – the “millennium winter” merely appears in the headline. A closer reading of the article quickly reveals: the quotes were answers to questions concerning the role of the Gulf Stream for Europe´s climate. The frosty temperatures are hypothetical effects of a breakdown of the Gulf Stream – which, as Kowalewski points out, can be pretty much ruled out.

We asked Kowalewski for his comments on the media coverage and promptly got his answer in an email from Warsaw:

The reports in some media are absolutely unbelievable. A journalist who interviewed me for radio had asked me about the theoretical climatic effects of a breakdown of the Gulf Stream. I answered that this purely hypothetic scenario would lead to much colder winters in Poland. A few days later I found on the internet the article of a journalist who mixed his own words with some of my quotes without their context so well that a completely new meaning came out. An absolutely absurd thesis. My quotes as such are correct, so I was not able to demand a correction.

Winter has Europe in its grip: the Süring-building of the Potsdam Institute.

It’s an interesting and insightful tale how this story spread. Here is a brief chronology:

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