Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Let It Snow

"Oh the weather outside is frightful...."

According to our glorious news media, you'd certainly think it was. In their narrative, we're locked in the icy grip of vast blizzards which have caught us completely unaware (in December, of all months!), sweeping across the countryside, turning every living thing in their path into highly-decorative-but-fatal ice-sculptures in an instant - while thousands of well-insulated illegal immigrants sneak in under the cover of the endless white-outs, and the enormous drifts of snow which threaten the very fabric of our British way of life (and ability to drive to Tesco) will undoubtedly also further weaken house prices. Although some of that might have been mildly exaggerated, one thing is clear - it's a disaster. And one that's almost certainly not been seen for...oooh...ages.

Or is it?

Well, there's certainly some snow blowing about the place, and we've seen some impressive disruptions on various forms of transport, but frankly, I don't see what the current media fuss over the 'not-half-as-abnormal-as-you'd-be-led-to-believe' winter weather is all about. Yes, Basingstoke, for example, was a bit of a mess, and the Eurostar train failures - the 'wrong kind of snow' (ie. stuff that was a little colder and more plentiful than they'd bothered to engineer their trains for to save money, or, if you prefer the company's view "unprecedented") proved yet again that electrical systems and water don't mix very well, would you believe? - screwed-up quite a lot of people's travel plans, but these are, in the grander scheme of things, pretty minor, short-term difficulties.

Of course, more people die in very cold weather, which means every spell like this brings its litany of personal tragedies - and my own enjoyment of some of the wintry delights on offer - and let's be honest, the kids are currently having a bloody great time (as my older monkey ably demonstrates in the local park) - comes with the unhappy knowledge that our next heating bill is going to be budget-worryingly high - a delight that's shared by over 5 million households living in fuel poverty.

But the overall apocalyptic tone of the coverage is ridiculous. For instance, here are a few pictures of what the BBC website headlines "More snow chaos". Errrr...nope. Not unless they've managed to convince the OED to publish a brand-new definition of 'chaos', that is. Which is possible - I've been pretty busy, so might not have been paying sufficient attention to the latest lexicographical trends. If that's the case, mea culpa, ok?

Anyway, quite apart from the hyperbole floating about, the news media seem to have very short collective memories of winters past - especially if you have a glance at this chart of "British Winter Snowfall Events" (Dave O'Hara, Ferryhill Weather Station)

According to Mr. O'Hara's list, we've had 7 "snowy" or "very snowy" winters since I was born - and that's excluding areas that have had localised heavy falls in otherwise "average" years.

And perhaps we should cast our minds as far back as...oh, February this year, when it was reported that:
"South-east England has been hit by the heaviest snow in 18 years, causing trains and buses to be cancelled, and airports and schools to be closed.

Snow is now moving north, with the Pennines, north-east England and the Scottish Borders at risk of seeing up to 12 inches (30cm) of snowfall."

You see, what I fail to understand is...well, people's failure to understand that this sort of weather can and does happen in Britain. Why are so many of the drivers on our roads apparently ignorant of how basic things they should do to cope with/prepare for these conditions?

Perhaps part of the problem is the way we see ourselves, how a bizarre image of these islands somehow being an as-yet-internationally-unrecognised adjunct of the Mediterranean (the tabloids' typical summer frothings over fruity young urban women in bikinis with the old "phwoar! what a scorcher!" headlines help twist our minds to building this delusion of Southern European geographical kinship) has taken hold.

Ultimately, whatever we may wish for in terms of culture and diet, we cannot escape the fact that physically we live in what is very much a northern country. And to help out the more cartographically-challenged folk, here's something you might (!) find interesting...

Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, sits at a latitude of N 55deg 58'. So if you start heading east from that point, you find it's further north than Copenhagen (Denmark), Malmo (Sweden), all of Poland, Vilnius (Lithuania), Minsk (Belarus), Moscow & Omsk (Russia), Grand Prairie & Edmonton (Canada).

But perhaps that's too easy - so let's use London (N 51deg 30') instead...that's still north of Brussels & Antwerp (Belgium), Eindhoven (The Netherlands), Leipzig (Germany), Warsaw (Poland), Kiev (Ukraine), Orsk (Russian Fed.), Astana (Kazakhstan), Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Vancouver, Calgary and most other places of any size in Canada.

Now, a particular number of degrees north or south is hardly the sole determinant of any country's weather patterns, I know - we're small islands, stuck slap-bang next to the Atlantic, with variable topography in close proximity, Gulf Stream, blah blah blah. Sure. It's complicated, but it is a significant factor.

And by way of a final illustration of exactly where we sit, I'll leave you with this - here in Dunfermline, according to Google Earth I live almost exactly 724 miles due south from the Arctic Circle.

Britain (using the same system, and measuring as the crow flies from the Shetlands to the tip of Cornwall - France can have the Channel Islands if they want) is 769 miles in length.

Maybe if more folk took a good look at a map, and worked out where they were standing on the planet, they'd be a bit less surprised the next time some snow drops on their heads.

Snow and ice - in winter! Shocking, eh?

1 comment:

Andy Gilmour said...

By way of a p.s.

A wee bit of further research on Gulf Stream effects turned-up this oddity - it probably *increases* chances of particularly heavy snowfalls (whether long-lying or not), due to something called the "Lake-effect"

whodathunkit? :-)

Also, apparently the polar jet stream ("high altitude windy stuff", for the non-technical) has been quite far south over the last 3 years, and it has a significant effect on storminess, etc. So if we're looking for a culprit, it might be an unfortunate convergence of the positions of the two 'streams', oceanic & atmospheric.

Or we could just call it "winter", if that's easier...