Weather: Where it's always the wrong kind of snow
Monday 22 December 1997
"Every year, it's as if it hits us like a bolt from the blue, the same problem all over again."
That was undoubtedly the meteorological quote of last week, but who said it? Was it perhaps a spokesman for Railtrack, bemoaning snow on his lines? Or a power company unable to cope with a sudden surge in demand? Or someone from the National Association of People Pissed Off With Being Unable Yet Again to Get a Plumber to Cope With the Frozen Pipes Before the Thaw Causes Flooding? It could have been any of those, but in fact it was Boris Yeltsin, just before he caught that terrible cold.
Almost 20 years ago, I found myself in Estonia in February, just after the winter snows had finished and been trampled into hard ice on the ground. When they knew there were no fresh snows to come, the local council sent workmen on to the streets to chisel out paving-stone-sized slabs of ice from the pavement. They proceeded methodically down every road, piling up these huge slabs in towers some three or four feet tall by the roadside. Then they sprinkled grit over the clear pavement, and waited until spring.
It was a thoroughly efficient performance and convinced me that places with really cold winters knew how to deal with such things. However, with Boris Yeltsin's statement last week fully confirmed by reports of weather- related deaths in Moscow, I have now lost that illusion.
Quite apart from the drunks and the homeless who have frozen to death on the streets (I was told once in Moscow that it's quite a pleasant way to die) we now learn of deaths on the road caused by drivers who can't turn their steering wheels in time because they are almost mummified in layer upon layer of winter clothing, and by the fact that their victims cannot get out of the way in time because they cannot hear the vehicles approaching because the ear flaps on their furry hats are turned down. (It's clearly the wrong type of hat, tovarish; at least as far as crossing the road goes.)
Last week, temperatures dropped below -30C in Moscow. According to my chart of wind chill equivalent temperatures, a temperature of -30 with a wind speed of 15 mph is equivalent to a temperature of -51.7, and if the wind rises to 25 mph, it feels as cold as -60.6. Exposed flesh freezes immediately below -55, while at -60, one's entire energies are devoted to staying warm enough to survive.
When the winds blow in from the Russian steppes, carrying cold, dry air to western Europe, the conditions are created for Britain to be at its snowiest. If the snow has blown over with the winds - which happens relatively infrequently - it is the dry, powdery, wrong sort of snow that the rail men love to blame, but more often the snow comes as the icy winds from the east freeze the moisture in the air that has come from the Atlantic.
Last week some British bookies dropped their odds against a white Christmas to 2-1, despite forecasters saying that more snow is highly unlikely. At these odds it looks very much like the wrong sort of bet.
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