January 07, 2010

On the nature of snow - particularly in the UK

I've written about this before, but it seems that we British cannot deal with snow. (Yes, I know the picture shows somewhere in the US, but that's not the point!)

I look at places like Buffalo, New York, which has snowfall in the meters per year, and also places like Whistler, Canada - where it dropped 9 feet of snow in the 12 days I was there recently - and I see that far from grinding to a halt these places can deal with it.

Here in the UK on the other hand we have the situation where a smattering of the white stuff can cause the country to grind to a halt. Just prior to Christmas we had a (relatively) light dusting  and it caused front page news. The airports closed, people were stuck in their cars overnight, traffic chaos ensued. It took us almost a week to get back to normality. (Update the BBC wrote about what would have to change if weather like this came every year)

Now - to our horror - the snow is back. This time with a vengance. It dropped anywhere between 6 inches and 18 inches overnight depending on where you were in the country and it is still snowing 24 hours later albeit not quite as heavily. As an indication of the level of snow we have had, the two pictures that follow are identical shots of the same place taken a mere 12 hours apart.

Now that may not look that bad to you, but believe me it caused absolute pandemonium here in Britain. To be fair it was one of the worst single nights of snow I can recall ever falling in the UK. To my knowledge we haven't had this much snow this quickly since 'the big freeze of 1962'.

But here's the problem: We still can't deal with it. I don't know anyone who made it in to work today. The road outside my house is still covered in snow because no gritters have been around (although a plow did pass by late in the afternoon to remove the top layer of snow and compact the stuff underneath into hard standing ready to turn into ice when the temperature drops again. As it will)

In parts of Yorkshire they ran out of salt and gritting materials because - wait for this - the deliveries of fresh supplies where delayed due to.. snow.

And in one of the ultimate ironies the new indoor ski slope in Manchester has had to close its doors today because of - you guessed it - snow.

The airlines have cancelled flights. Runways are closed. Rail and bus timetables have been thrown out of the windows. Many of the main trunk routes through the south of England are impassible and the main road crossings of the Pennines are closed.


Because England/Britain cannot handle snow. We don't have anywhere near enough snowploughs and gritters to cover the roads that are needed. The government doesn't spend enough on doing things to make it easier, like having a reasonable early warning system and contingency plans for things like public transport. In theory the bus routes are the first to be ploughed and cleared, but with thousands of miles of those and a small number of ploughs the odds of something happening in time are remote.

In places like the US or Canada, when the snow falls, they have sufficient equipment to be able to deal with these types of emergencies. I don't have the exact figures to hand but I recall a number of years ago hearing that Scotland has as many ploughs and gritters in Aberdeen as the whole of South East England has. Obviously the weather calls for this in Aberdeen, but it is on of the route causes of the problem: a lack of infrastructure to deal with this.

Of course the naysayers are quick to point out that spending the public purse on lots of extra ploughs and gritters would be wasteful considering they are rarely needed. The flip side to that argument, of course, is that when they are needed they are vital. Not having these pieces of equipment is meaning the difference between having a large proportion of the population getting to work on any given day or not. The productivity drop over the last couple of days must have been tremendous (although there is a school of thought which says that a lot of people stay at home and work remotely which is usually more productive, the number of wasteful meetings is reduced and the people who do make it in to work are more efficient and get the work done, thereby improving productivity)

So once again I look out of my window where - for the third day running I see snow everywhere, no traffic moving and people confined to their homes - except for the odd flurry of activity when a snowball fight might break out.

And don't get me started about what will happen when all this snow thaws.

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