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27 January, 2004

Something's on the move...

For the last six days, weather forecasters have been warning the UK to brace for severe winter weather, possibly the worst for years, as winds change to blow direct from the Arctic.  Conditions are expected to switch from the unseasonably warm, wet January we've had to date, with daytime temperatures around 10°C, plummeting within a matter of hours to daytime temperatures of -1°C.  With steady winds in excess of 35mph, wind chill is going to be severe.  The first real snowfall of the season is anticipated, which has been refined in the last couple of hours to a forecast of snow, brief rain, severe cold, then more snow by the morning rush hour i.e. snow melted by road salt, which will be sufficiently diluted by rain to freeze, in time to accept the second snowfall, itself coinciding with the busiest period on the roads.

This is the first ever time I recall actually anticipating bad weather, and tracking it on successive forecasts; the first time I've glanced from a weather radar sequence on my PC monitor to a perfectly clear sky outside, knowing it's about to change drastically. I frequently time my departure from work to meet gaps shown in the rain radar, but this feels ominous; I'll even use the word 'portentious'.

Reader outside the UK mightn't understand the reaction to this shift in the weather; by global standards, these aren't extreme temperatures or wind speeds, and a few centimetres of snow might seem trivial. However, there are a few points to note.

Firstly, and maybe most trivially, the immediacy of the change is rather shocking. UK average temperatures rarely drop by ten degrees within a matter of hours. A gradual trend allows acclimatisation and might even go almost unnoticed, but a sudden drop *feels* even colder than the thermometer says!

Secondly, though the extremes aren't that extreme, the temperature shift passes through a critical range for the properties of water. At -2°C, the weight of a person walking on lying snow will melt it, wetting and severely chilling his/her feet, or refreezing and reducing safe traction (both on that individual's feet and on the pavement, affecting other pedestrians). At -20°C, lying snow is frozen, so is somewhat less hazardous. Similarly, relatively warm snow falling on a person walking (or cycling...) will melt, magnifying the effect of temperature and wind chill more than really cold snow bouncing off dry.

Thirdly, the UK simply copes very badly with even mild winter conditions. Buildings, and especially their water supplies, are inadequately insulated, so pipes burst and hundreds die of hypothermia in their own homes. British drivers tend to have neither the training nor experience to travel safely over ice or the thinnest coating of snow. Bizarrely, the nation reacts as if each winter is the first ever, and that it's inconceivable that frozen water might fall from the skies, so year after year, a single snowy morning brings road and rail networks to a halt.
In countries like Norway, real winter weather is to be expected, and lifestyles / social provision have evolved to accommodate it. Houses are well-insulated and often even triple-glazed (as I said earlier, this is the first house I've occupied since 1990 which has had double-glazing), and drivers proceed sensibly on totally snow-covered roads, at sensible speeds using studded winter tyres.

Uh oh. In the time I've taken to write this, the stars have vanished, the sky has acquired the uniform orange of street lights on low cloud, and the road is wet, though it's not raining or snowing right now. It's almost here...


'so pipes burst and hundreds die of hypothermia in their own homes'

Is this factually correct ? If so, where did you find the published figures for winter hypothermia deaths?

Posted by Yorkshire Soul at January 28, 2004 12:36 PM

It was a slight misrepresentation to suggest a number of deaths specifically due to hypothermia, but the UK Office for National Statistics provides data on 'excess’ winter deaths.

A 'Help The Aged' press release states that 21,800 older people died as a direct result of the cold during the winter of 2002/3, the highest proportion of 'excess' winter deaths in the European Union.

'Help The Aged' explains these deaths as including strokes, heart attacks or respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis or pneumonia, exacerbated by cold and damp, but a recent news report is anecdotal evidence of deaths due to hypothermia itself.
The 24/12/03 Leader article in The Guardian mentions this case, and others.

Admittedly I can't provide figures, but I feel it reasonable to speculate that of 21,800 'excess' deaths, a matter of hundreds can be ascribed to hypothermia.

Posted by NRT at January 28, 2004 01:18 PM

Fair enough then, doesn't it seem appaling that in our rich, advanced, Western nation we can't stop people freezing to death.

Posted by Yorkshire Soul at January 29, 2004 07:43 AM
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