Weather: Europe

By and large, European weather obeys the dictum “moderation in all things”. When compared to other mid-latitude continents, Europe is indeed a favoured child. Tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards may fling themselves at the United States; China may endure intense heat and brutal cold; but most of Europe trundles along with relatively few weather worries. In some European cities it's a noteworthy event if the temperature drops 10°C/18°F from one afternoon to the next – a change that's standard fare for Americans.

It's not as if Europe is ensconced in the sub-tropics. Madrid and New York share roughly the same latitude (about 40.5°N), and Copenhagen is closer to the North Pole than Patagonia is to the South Pole. What keeps most of Europe temperate is the unimpeded influence of air from the Atlantic. There are no major mountain barriers running along the west coast of Europe, as there are in both North and South America. As a result, mild, moist air can sweep far into the European interior on a regular basis, whether it's summer or winter. Europe also lacks a large land mass to its north that would generate bitter cold waves, like the ones that spread south from Canada into the US and Mexico. In fact, some of Europe's worst rounds of severe chill arrive from the east, courtesy of Russia, rather than from the north. Truly oppressive heat is rare across northern and central Europe, although it's a different story south of the Alps. As the Mediterranean warms up in summer, countries from Spain to Greece typically swelter. Occasional bursts of Saharan air, borne on dusty, irritating south winds, can also ratchet up the temperature across large parts of the continent.

With the Atlantic exerting such a big influence, you might expect Europe to be awash in water. Northern and central Europe do get rain and/or snow throughout the year, and certainly the climate will seem moist enough to someone who visits Amsterdam in November. When you add up the amounts, however, the rainfall across great stretches of Europe is surprisingly paltry. Most of the continent north of the Alps, from France across Germany to Russia, averages less than 1000mm/39in of rain and melted snow per year. The figures for London and Paris are even lower, in the region of 600mm/24in – less than the averages for Sydney, New York or San Francisco. In another part of the world, this wouldn't be enough to sustain the kind of agriculture and flora that predominate across Europe. However, the continent's high latitude makes the summer sun too weak to parch plants easily, and the typically high humidities and extensive cloud cover help keep the rain from evaporating too quickly. Also, rather than pouring and running off, much of Europe's rain falls in drizzles, mists or sprinkles, allowing it to be well absorbed by the ground. (The city graphs in this book show the number of days on which rain exceeds a small threshold. Especially in Europe, visitors can expect several additional days with sprinkles in any given month that's wet to begin with.)

Exceptions make the rule, and European weather has its share. The western coastlines of the British Isles and Scandinavia – where it rains both hard and long – are infamously soggy. The Alps produce a cornucopia of effects on the weather surrounding them. Spain – with mountains and plateaus scattered across it and two bodies of water nearby – has micro-climates galore. Even the more uniform regimes of, say, Belgium and The Netherlands include frequent day-to-day variations, as weak Atlantic systems brush past. Although the recipes for European weather may be dominated by vanilla rather than Tabasco, one learns to appreciate subtleties in the mix.