Photo: B. Alter
The UK has been battered by a miserable snow storm: the worst since 1910. Airports have been closed since Saturday, people were marooned in their cars on the highway for hours and the line-up for the Paris-bound Eurostar was around the block.
But was this storm the result of a run of bad weather or should the country officially acknowledge that its weather patterns are changing and they had better do something about it.
This is the coldest December since 1910. The roads aren't ploughed, people don't own shovels and don't understand the concept of shovelling the sidewalk and no one has sand in their trunks for when they get stuck. The mail isn't being delivered, trains are stalled mid-journey and there are threats of food shortages.
The problem is that there is no infrastructure to deal with heavy snow. BAA, the private, profitable owner of the airports, has not invested in substantive snow removal equipment. With tens of thousands of passengers stranded at Heathrow Airport, Britain's largest airport is the shame of Europe and the head of BAA is saying that "heads will roll" over the failure to anticipate the bad weather.
The Transport Secretary has asked the government's chief scientific adviser whether the UK might expect more severe winters in the coming decades, and whether it ought to invest in more equipment to keep its infrastructure going during bad weather like this month's.
But the head of the RAC Foundation (our CAA in Canada or the Triple A in the USA) has his head in the snow. He wrote a report which said that the weather office "remained convinced that harsh winters do not come in clusters. Asked whether there should be concerted investment in snow-clearing equipment, following the third snowbound winter in a row, he said: "Are you happy to invest more in kit that may sit at the back of the depot and won't be used?"
Photo: mirror news
The question is: why can't the UK cope? For one reason, the winters are unpredictable, it has only been the last three years that things have been so cold and snowy in comparison with the relatively mild and snow-free winters of the last two decades. So municipalities didn't stock up on salt for the roads and airports didn't bother investing in expensive snow removal equipment.
George Monbiot has a different theory. He believes that "there is now strong evidence to suggest that the unusually cold winters of the last two years in the UK are the result of heating elsewhere."
As he writes in the Guardian:
"The weather we get in UK winters is strongly linked to the contrasting pressure between the Icelandic low and the Azores high. When there's a big pressure difference the winds come in from the south-west, bringing mild damp weather from the Atlantic. When there's a smaller gradient, air is often able to flow down from the Arctic. High pressure in the icy north last winter, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, blocked the usual pattern and "allowed cold air from the Arctic to penetrate all the way into Europe, eastern China, and Washington DC". Nasa reports that the same thing is happening this winter."
"Will this become the pattern? It's not yet clear. Vladimir Petoukhov of the Potsdam Institute says that the effects of shrinking sea ice "could triple the probability of cold winter extremes in Europe and northern Asia". James Hansen of Nasa counters that seven of the last 10 European winters were warmer than average. There are plenty of other variables: we can't predict the depth of British winters solely by the extent of sea ice....A global warming trend doesn't mean that every region becomes warmer every month. That's what averages are for: they put local events in context."
The good news is that the snow is melting and planes are taking off. The bad news is that more cold is expected this weekend, and there are still thousands of people trying to get home for Christmas.