Present Climate and Environment

The present climate of the Faroe Islands is strongly maritime, reflecting proximity to the sea and the moderating influence of the North Atlantic Drift. Summers are cool and winters are mild. In general, the present climate can be characterized as windy, humid, and changeable. In Torshavn, the present mean annual air temperature is 6.5oC (1961—1990), with year-to-year variations of 0.5—1.5oC. August is the warmest month with an average temperature of 10.5oC and the coldest is January with 3.2oC. Lying just south of the Arctic Circle, there is no true "midnight sun." The annual mean precipitation is around 850 mm w.e. (water equivalent) in the west (Mykines) and increases to about 2750 mm w.e. in the mountainous northern and eastern part of the islands. Precipitation may exceed 3000 mm in the high mountains. At sea level, about 10% of the annual precipitation falls as snow and the snow cover only lasts for 10—20 days. In the high mountains, the duration of the snow cover may locally exceed 200 days. Only few—if any—permanent or semipermanent snow patches are presently found. The mean cloud cover is about 80% in all seasons. The dominant wind direction is from the west, southwest, and south, while especially winds from the east and northeast are less frequent. The Faroes lie on one of the major cyclonic tracks of the North Atlantic, and wind speeds can be as high as 10 m s-1 during winter, when storms with very strong winds from the north are frequent.

Since 1867, when official meteorological observations were initiated in Torshavn, the mean annual air temperature has undergone significant variations. During the 1920s and early 1930s, the mean annual air temperature increased by about 1.8oC while the average Earth surface air temperature increased just 0.1oC, but afterwards a cooling trend has dominated until recent years. These air temperature variations probably reflect contemporary variations in the temperature and intensity of the North Atlantic Drift. At least, the annual number of whales caught in the pilot whale drive (grind) in the Faroe Islands varies much as the mean annual air temperature (surface water temperatures are linked to food availability, suggesting a correlation between water temperatures and air temperatures). In the absence of the North Atlantic Drift, considering the latitude, winter air temperatures would presumably be at least 6—7oC lower than at present. The Faroe Islands are in a climatically very sensitive region, with the ocean as a controlling factor. Changes in the North Atlantic surface ocean current would have a significant and immediate impact on the local Faroese climate.

The Faroe Islands has the longest series of sea surface temperatures in the world, going back to 1867. These show considerable variations (about 2oC) in the annual mean ocean surface temperatures. The overall mean sea surface temperature is about 7.7oC; the two coldest periods (1867-1869 and 1965-1969) produced mean temperatures of 6.5oC and 6.9oC, while the two warmest years (1894 and 1951) produced means of 8.5oC and 8.9oC.

Knowledge regarding the modern mountain climate of the Faroe Islands is poor. Modern periglacial features, such as small sorted stone circles, stone stripes, deflation surfaces and terraces, solifluction sheets, and lobes are widespread above 300 m, suggesting a mountain climate characterized by extreme humidity and strong winds rather than extreme cold. Adopting a standard vertical lapse rate of about 0.0065oC m-1, the mean winter air temperatures in the high mountains probably lie between -0.3oC and 0oC, with annual mean temperatures of 1-4oC. Permafrost is consequently absent on the Faroe Islands, although winter ground freezing on high ground may affect shallow depths, to 5-10 cm, and occasionally reach depths of 0.5 m.

Thin peat soils accommodate few trees, and vegetation consists mainly of low growing shrubs, grasses, and moss. All mammal species are introduced, and sheep are farmed. Offshore waters are rich in plankton, supporting a rich and diverse seabird and marine mammal population. About 40 species of seabirds regularly breed on the islands, the most common species being puffins, guillemots, razorbills, gannets, cormorants, kittiwakes, fulmars, skuas, and petrels. Pilot whales, bottleneck whales, fin whales, killer whales, dolphins, and porpoises are common offshore. Pilot whales have been hunted for meat and blubber since the earliest days of Norse settlement, and up to 1000 whales are taken annually in drives, where groups are herded onto the beaches. Commercially important fish include cod, haddock, Greenland halibut, Atlantic halibut, herring, blue whiting, capelin, and salmon and Arctic char.

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