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The big chill

It’s already looking like a white Christmas is assured.

After a week of the heaviest snow in Scotland for nearly 50 years, forecasters are warning that it could persist into the New Year. Although they are predicting less snow, there is no prospect of the mounds of white stuff melting away.

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Temperatures are expected to remain mostly below zero for several weeks, with widespread danger from ice and freezing fog. “There is no sign of any significant thaw,” Alex Hill, a senior Met Office adviser to the Scottish Government, told the Sunday Herald.

“It’s possible that it will stay below freezing until the New Year.”

For many, that’s a daunting prospect, bringing more dangerously slippery streets, transport disruptions, closed schools and a host of other hindrances to routine daily life. For others, though, it means more beautiful winterscapes, camaraderie and family fun.

Scotland’s relationship with the weather has always been all-consuming. It determines what we wear, how we travel, where we go and what we do. It impacts on our work and play, helps shape us as individuals and as a nation, and can end lives. So it is not surprising the weather is a national obsession. Nor that it so frequently dominates the headlines, whether it’s “Phew, what a scorcher” or “White-out Scotland”.

And it’s not surprising that every time the weather throws us into chaos we cannot seem to talk about anything else. Each extreme event reminds us that we may think we are the masters of the world, but nature only needs to flick its tail for us to be at its mercy, and we can easily become its victims. Why is it so snowy and cold?

Normally the winds that blow across Scotland come from the west and keep our winters relatively mild. But last month, like last winter, a large area of high pressure formed over the Atlantic, blocking the warm westerlies.

This allowed very cold air from the Arctic to move south across mainland Europe. When this crosses the North Sea, it picks up moisture and dumps it as snow on the east coast, which saw the heaviest falls last week. The Met Office’s chief meteorologist, Ewen McCallum, said: “One reason we have seen such large amounts of snow is the pressure is much lower than normal, allowing the air to rise and form deeper clouds, therefore producing heavier showers.”

According to the Met Office, between 30 and 50 centimetres of snow has fallen in the last few days across Scotland. The last time there was anything comparable was in November 1965.

Temperatures towards the end of the week fell below minus 10 degrees centigrade in many places. The coldest place on Thursday night was Braemar, which registered minus 20.4 degrees, with minus 16.8 in Aberdeen, minus 15 in Edinburgh and minus 10 in Glasgow.

The coldest place all week was Altnaharra in Sutherland, which registered minus 21.1 degrees on Wednesday. The remote hamlet was besieged by journalists, who found local people shrugging their shoulders and getting on with it.

The Met Office is predicting the cold weather will continue for at least the next 30 days, with periods of snow, sleet, freezing rain and fog. “For the remainder of December and into the start of the New Year, temperatures look set to remain well below average for much of the UK, with often widespread frost and ice,” warns the official forecast.

Weather experts caution one cold snap should not be used to argue the globe is not being warmed by human pollution. In fact the World Meteorological Organisation predicted last week that 2010 would be one of the three warmest years on record.

Although parts of Europe have suffered cold spells, Greenland, Canada, China, Africa and Asia all saw much higher temperatures than usual. “All weather events are now influenced by humankind,” said James Curran, director of science at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa).

“The severity of the current weather hitting Scotland and the UK is no exception to that and is part of a global pattern of increasingly severe and erratic weather, be it floods, droughts, hurricanes or snow storms. We are now seeing weather events that were previously unusual happening on an increasingly frequent basis.”

Scientists point out that increased precipitation in winter is one of the likely outcomes of climate change for Scotland. Naturally, when it’s cold that will mean more snow. And when the snow does eventually thaw, Sepa has warned of the risk that rivers could flood. The risk will be especially high if an unsettled Atlantic weather system moves in, bringing a rapid rise in the temperature and heavy rainfall.

  impact on transport

At the start of last week, transport minister Stewart Stevenson was at Leith docks near Edinburgh to welcome the arrival of 26,000 tonnes of road salt from Peru. “Scotland is ready for the icy blast,” he declared, insisting the Government was doing all it could “to keep Scotland moving”. What a difference a week makes. With main roads, railways and airports smothered by snow and grinding to a halt for prolonged periods, the minister’s confidence ended up looking somewhat misplaced.

So on Friday Stevenson cancelled his plan to fly to the world climate summit at the Mexican beach resort of Cancun, where the temperature is expected to reach a balmy 25 degrees this weekend. Instead he is staying behind to oversee the transport crisis created by the weather, and is sending the energy minister, Jim Mather, in his place.

After worries about shops running out of food, Stevenson was at a media event at Tesco’s distribution centre in Livingston yesterday watching lorries being packed and dispatched to supermarkets around the country. “Scotland is in the grip of the worst snow and ice conditions at this time of year since the 1960s and this is having serious knock-on effects across the country,” he said.

The disruption to Scotland’s essential transport links has been severe, and in some ways unprecedented. For the first time ever, the Forth road bridge was closed by snow after a jack-knifed lorry blocked both lanes. Edinburgh Airport was closed for most of the week, causing hundreds of flights to be cancelled or redirected. Scores of train services were cancelled or delayed, with virtually no trains making it north of the central belt on Friday. There were frequent road closures, often caused by lorries and cars slipping and crashing in the snow. Many of the country’s arterial routes, including the M8 and the A9, were blocked for periods, and very difficult to negotiate most of the time.

Businesses were critical of the failure to cope, though sympathetic with the extreme problems being faced. “It’s clear the current extreme weather has exposed weaknesses in the system,” said the managing director of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, Graham Birse. “Given last winter’s inordinately long snowy spell, which was described as a ‘once in 20 years’ winter, the return of even more severe weather earlier than last year means that doing nothing is not an option,” he said.

The Government’s emergency resilience committee met every day last week. Ministers have overseen the management of Scotland’s salt stock pile, monitored the fuel supply and assisted in ensuring essential supplies, such as blood plasma, can be delivered. Ministers have also agreed to relax the rules for gritters and deliveries of fuel and poultry feed to allow drivers longer behind the wheel with fewer rests, and more time to get vital supplies through to farmers, small businesses and homeowners.

  impact on daily life

Sometimes the snow can be deadly. Two pensioners were found dead in their gardens in Cumbria last week, and a shed collapsed under the weight of snow in Angus, killing two cattle. On Friday, 14-year-old Samantha Kinghorn from Berwickshire was helicoptered to hospital with suspected spinal injuries after being hit by snow from her roof as she was clearing a path.

Perhaps the most serious risk from the cold is faced by the elderly, up to 200,000 of whom are believed to be at risk. Every year the cold kills around 3000 old people in Scotland. There are fears this year the figure could be higher, particularly if the cold spell is prolonged. Age Concern Scotland said its helpline had been “inundated” with calls from anxious pensioners last week. They were worried about slipping on uncleared pavements, mending broken boilers and food shortages.

“This is not the time to worry about your fuel bills,” said the group’s Callum Chomczuk. “It’s the time to look after yourself and your health.”

Norman Kerr, director of fuel poverty charity Energy Action Scotland, pointed out there were already a record number of Scottish households struggling to afford to heat their homes. “The harsh winter weather we’re now experiencing will hit many even harder,” he said.

Pressure on hospitals has increased as people fall and hurt themselves and staff struggle to get to work. Social service groups helping the elderly and those with disabilities have had to cancel home visits and lunch clubs.

“It has been a nightmare trying to get our meals out,” said Melanie Fyfe from the voluntary group Cook ‘n’ Care in Possilpark, Glasgow. “We deliver to people with dementia, so if you don’t get to people they won’t eat as they forget. Some of the people will not have a family so we need to get to them.”

The young have been affected too, with more than 1000 schools closed across Scotland. Blanket closures in some local authority areas, including Glasgow, sparked a fierce political row between the Scottish Government and local authorities. The education minister, Michael Russell, criticised the chaos caused by last-minute closures, and wrote to councils urging them to allow individual headmasters to determine whether their schools should close.

This provoked a terse rebuke from the president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, Pat Watters, who suggested that the minister wanted to be “seen to be doing something”.

Postal deliveries, courier services, rubbish collections and recycling have all been badly hit. Online retailer Amazon warned of delays delivering Christmas presents, and the Post Office withdrew its guarantee to deliver premium packages the next day. Although the major supermarket chains say they have not suffered serious shortages, there have been local reports of shortages of fresh food, bread and milk, some prompted by panic buying. Some shops have even rationed the amount of essentials customers can buy.

The weather has hit sales, with out-of-town centres much harder to get to. David McCorquodale, head of retail at accounting firm KPMG, estimated sales could be down 50% on the previous week. Petrol retailers have warned that garages could run short of fuel, particularly in remote areas. BP said deliveries from its Grangemouth terminal had been “severely impacted by the bad weather”.

The cost to the Scots economy could already be well over £100 million, rising by between £10m and £15m a day. “The continuing cold weather is having a big impact on Scottish business,” said David Clarkson from accountants Price Waterhouse Coopers.

Householders will also have to shoulder extra costs, with pipes bursting, roofs being damaged and gutters collapsing from the sheer weight of snow. The bill for roof repairs could total more than £1m, according to the National Federation of Roofing Contractors in Scotland. In rural areas, farmers are battling to keep their businesses going. There have been problems with the delivery of animal feed, and fuel supplies have been low in areas.

Bob Carruth from the National Farmers Union in Scotland said heavy snow had already brought down 15 farm buildings in the northeast and the Borders. “Scotland’s farmers may be stretched but they are focused on getting their stock through this rough weather,” he added.

For those who do venture out, there are dangers everywhere. As well as the risk of being hit by snow or icicles falling off buildings, there are avalanche warnings, not just for the Highlands, but for lowland hills such as the Pentlands near Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat in the capital as well.

The Government’s outdoor agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, has warned walkers not to be tempted to walk across frozen lochs. “

It’s great to see people getting out to enjoy Scotland’s stunning winter landscape,” said nature reserve manager Catriona Reid.

“However, we urge people to take responsibility for their own safety and the safety of others by respecting the wintry conditions and sticking to the paths and not walking onto frozen lochs.”

  The good side of snow

Sometimes snow brings out the best in people. Debbie Winton is one of the “sub-zero heroes” the First Minister Alex Salmond talked about last week. She is a home carer with Edinburgh City Council who visits vulnerable or infirm people to help them wash, dress and eat. Last week, because her early morning bus got stuck in snow, she made an eight mile round trip from Currie to Morningside to make sure she got to see one of her clients. “I left my house at 6.35am and didn’t arrive until 8.15am,” she said.

“With some of our service users, if you don’t go then no-one else will and there will be people left in their beds. It was hard because some of the roads were packed with snow and none of the gritters had been out yet.”

Winton wasn’t alone, though. “Scotland has pulled together tremendously well,” said a Scottish Government spokesman. Parents and children unable to get to work and school went out sledging and snowballing, built snowmen, made snow angels and igloos. A woman skiied along Portobello beach and a man, caught on YouTube, slalomed down Arthur’s Seat.

The Highland ski centres are hoping for a bumper weekend, as are ice rinks. The retailer B&Q sold 3000 sledges in the last seven days and more than double the usual amount of kindling, logs and coal. Sales of soup, porridge, hot water bottles and wellies have surged.

As ever, there was no shortage of humour. People swapped stories of snow ploughs being stuck on speed bumps and the joys of working from home in their pyjamas. Edinburgh Zoo, closed because of the snow, was taken by surprise when its webcam overlooking the penguin enclosure became an internet sensation with hundreds of thousands of people watching the penguins online and eventually crashing the zoo’s internet server.

  Caring for wild animals

Wildlife groups are urging people to help animals survive the snow and ice by putting out food for them, while hunting groups have imposed a voluntary ban on shooting wildfowl.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust suggested putting out fat-balls and mealworms for garden birds, and clearing patches of ground. “Our wildlife could be restricted to local areas and food supplies could quickly dwindle as competition increases,” said the trust’s chief executive Simon Milne.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds urged walkers not to put ducks, geese and swans at risk by disturbing them. “There is no doubt that many birds will be fighting for survival until conditions improve,” said Dr Paul Walton, the society’s head of habitats and species in Scotland.

  Snow abroad

It is not just Scotland and the UK suffering from the snow. About 30 homeless people are reported to have frozen to death in Poland. Deaths have also been reported in the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Germany and France.

Power supplies have been cut in Poland, leaving 150,000 people without power, and there have been blackouts in France, with about 3000 homes without power on Friday. Planes and trains have also been cancelled or delayed across Europe.

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