So this snow then. I’m not finding it too bad. Round my way we’ve had had a fair bit of it; I’d say I’ve had 7 or 8 inches in exposed places. (Oo-er, missus.) We had some snow on Friday night/ Saturday morning, quite a lot on Sunday, and light-to-moderate snow flurries most of the other days. I think the kids have had a couple of days off school. But it’s been not too bad. The traffic on the road’s been flowing quite well, the trains seem to be pulling in and out of my local station much as normal. This hasn’t, of course, stopped the media going into Snow Panic mode.
Anyway, I thought I might give my answers to some of the perennial and rather frustrating questions that are always asked at times like this.
Why can’t we cope with winter weather?
The problem is that, because the climate in most of the UK is usually so benign, we can normally carry on regardless of what the weather is doing. That means we assume being able to carry on as usual must be the normal state of affairs for all weather conditions, and so get frustrated when bad weather means we can’t. In reality, the fact that traffic moves slower on motorways in the aftermath of a blizzard doesn’t mean we can’t cope with winter weather, it just means that slow-moving traffic is a normal consequence of heavy snow anywhere in the world. The fact that airports in Britain close when snow is falling heavily enough to obscure visibility, or when the ground crews aren’t able to keep the runways clear of snow and ice, doesn’t mean we can’t cope with winter weather, it just means that closures of airports are a normal feature of cold weather everywhere. Coping with bad weather doesn’t mean being able to carry on exactly as though it were a mild spring day, it means adapting to the weather conditions, accepting that we can’t do all the things we can do in better weather, but keeping going as best we can in the circumstances. Which is, in fact, pretty much what we are doing.
Where are the gritters?
Grit (or, actually, dirty rock salt) is not, despite the touching faith of newspaper editors, Special Magic Snow-Be-Gone Dust. The grittiness aids traction, the saltiness lowers the freezing point of water, and thus helps reduce iciness. It can’t magic away 6 inches of snow. Spread it on top of standing snow and you get gritty snow for a while, and then you get pockmarked snow where the grit has melted through, leaving the bulk of the snow unaffected. Spread it on clear roads and slowly falling snow will melt before it has a chance to build up. Against rapidly falling snow, road grit is not all that much use, even if road surfaces have been treated before the snow starts. The current spell of bad weather has been characterised by periods of intense, heavy snowfall – precisely the conditions where gritters are of limited value.
Why’s the grit ‘running out’?
Councils build up stockpiles of grit. Then they start using the grit. As they use the grit, the size of the stockpile reduces. They arrange for periodic deliveries to replenish the stockpile, but in the gaps between those deliveries, the size of the stockpile reduces. If you’re a journalist, and you phone up a council and ask them how much grit they currently have stockpiled, and they say enough for 3 days, that doesn’t mean the grit is running out, and at the end of the 3rd day there will be no more grit. What it means is that the grit that will be used from the fourth day onwards is currently sitting at the supplier’s depot. Calling this state of affairs ‘running out’ is like saying a car with more than enough fuel to get to the next petrol station is running out of gas, or that a family with enough groceries to last until the next trip to the supermarket are running out of food.
Why do we cope so much worse than other countries with worse winters?
Yes, other countries experience weather like this every year and shrug it off. You know what? If we had weather conditions like this every year, we’d shrug them off, too. Similarly, countries that cope with weather like this struggle when they face conditions worse than those they usually expect. When it comes to preparedness, the key issue isn’t the severity of the weather, but how common it is.
In parts of America that get heavy snowfall, for example, people fit snowchains to their cars at the start of winter, because they know they’re bound to need them. If people living in the UK were in the habit of doing the same thing there’d have been far fewer tales of cars getting stuck on untreated minor roads. Of course, the reason people living in the UK don’t tend to fit snowchains is that heavy snow is an infrequent enough occurrence to mean it’s not worth the hassle. The same logic applies to all the other preparations for bad weather, those made by local government as much as those made by individuals. It doesn’t make sense to spend time and money preparing for uncommon events, which is why, in the UK, we don’t particularly prepare for weather like this – it doesn’t happen often enough.