Sitting in his Virginia home, weather expert and US Air Force veteran David Helms has a question on his mind about faraway Ukraine lately: “When does mud season end?”
He climate there is only one more thing that the troops in the trenches at the front have to fight. In an effort to lighten the load, retired meteorologist Helms analyzes the weather that could affect the war and posts his forecasts on social media using the hashtag “#NAFOWeather,” a likely reference to the Friends of the North Atlantic Organization, a movement of anti-Russian propaganda online. .
For the front in the Ukraine, Helms has the following prediction: “The loss of soil moisture really increases from May 1,” he wrote in his analysis for DW.
In southern Ukraine, the soil will be dry from mid-April, then two weeks later in the Donetsk region and from mid-May in the Russian-occupied Luhansk region further north, he explained.
If the prediction turns out to be correct, it could have significant strategic significance. While Russian tanks are still stuck in the mud in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian army could start a counter-offensive south towards the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol.
Helms is one of many digital volunteers around the world supporting Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion.
“To me, it’s just people who are interested and supportive of Ukraine, trying to do everything they can to do exactly that,” he said.
He writes, for example, about when there will be “optimal opportunities for optical satellite intelligence.” When clear skies allow for the best photos from space, other activists use the donations to order satellite images from private providers like Maxar and pass them on to Ukrainian commanders on the front lines.
This spring, Helms’ forecasts have special significance: Whoever determines the end of Ukraine’s mud season, which varies by region, is closer to answering the much-discussed question of when the country can launch a counter-offensive to free up the land occupied by Russian forces.
The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has referred to the planned counteroffensive in your daily video messages. As was his defense minister, who also recently expressed appreciation for the tanks sent by the UK and Germany, as well as the German Marder infantry fighting vehicles.
In Ukraine, the muddy season, known as “rasputitsa”, makes fields and unpaved roads impassable for about a month in autumn and spring, due to rain and melting snow, respectively. Tanks, troop transports and artillery pieces get stuck in the sodden earth.
“Between the amount of moisture and the volume in the top 20 centimeters of soil, as moisture increases, soil strength decreases,” Helms said, adding that it’s a logarithmic relationship. “It changes very quickly at certain points as moisture builds up. All winter we’ve been building up moisture in terms of snow and the ground surface has largely frozen over, although with climate change sometimes the layer topsoil has thawed out this winter.”
flat earth, black soil
The phenomenon has to do with the geography in many areas of Eastern Europe: flat land as far as the eye can see, and with a particular quality of soil. Ukraine’s black soil is part of what makes the southern part of the country among the most fertile in the world.
Former military meteorologist Helms also worked for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he studied the hydrological consequences of climate change, that is, changes in the composition of soils like what is happening right now in Ukraine.
“Mud season in the context of military vehicles depends not only on the strength of the ground, but also on the type of vehicles that are anticipated for any offensive operation,” Helms told DW. Simply put, the weight of tanks and armored personnel carriers, including the number of people they are carrying, determines whether they are likely to get stuck in Ukraine’s mud.
This article was originally written in German.