Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Snow Chaos: Should Western Europe prepare for colder winters?

I've been at home in the US for the past five days, and boy am I glad I got out of Europe when I did. I decided to head home for Christmas earlier than normal this year because I had a lot of holidays left to take - normally I head home two or three days before Christmas. On Friday morning I woke up to get ready for my flight to find a winter wonderland outside my window. But though the heavy snow caused a delay in my train to the airport, somehow my flight to New York wasn't delayed at all

But apparently after I left that snow just didn't stop falling. It's kept coming and coming, grounding airports in Europe to a halt from London to Milan. Brussels Airport was set to shut down yesterday after they found they had run out of de-icer fluid, but then apparently they found some more. But Heathrow Airport and Charles de Gaul are still ground to a halt as they grapple with the snow and cold. The busiest airport in Europe has now become "Hotel Heathrow" as stranded travelers have been camping out for the fourth day in a row, sure to miss Christmas with their families. The same scene has been seen at London, Paris and Brussels' international train stations, as high-speed lines have been ground to a halt. I sure feel lucky to have gotten here to spend Christmas with my family, but I can't say the same for my friends stuck in London, Brussels, Frankfurt and Paris.

The travel chaos is prompting many questions in Europe, but perhaps the most important is this - is this a freak act of nature, or an example of egregious poor planning by these Western European airports?

After all, airports in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe have been able to deal with the same amount of snow and freezing temperatures as Western Europe the past week and they've experienced no problems. There are plenty of people in Europe who think the past month has exposed a fundamental flaw in the airports of major Western European cities that do not have contingency plans for cold weather. The EU has been unusually blunt in its criticism. EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas today lambasted the airports, urging them to "get serious" about planning. He even called them a "weak link" in the infrastructure.

Of course with the Gulf Stream weather pattern blowing warm air from America onto the European Atlantic coast, Western Europe doesn't usually see icy temperatures like this, and such a huge amount of snow falling even before the first day of winter is unheard of. On one hand, one can say it's natural for Western European airports to be overwhelmed when they get the occasional heavy snowfall, because they don't have the expertise or equipment that airports in colder climes have. For example, Heathrow has only 69 ice-clearing vehicles, half the number of Oslo Airport which handles only one quarter of the amount of flights Heathrow does.

But considering these 'unprecedented snowstorms' seem to be happening with greater frequency every year, the British are now asking meteorologists whether this is a phenomenon that isn't going away. Should Western Europe be prepared for colder winters from now on? And if so, does that mean countries like Britain France and Belgium should drastically increase investment in winter preparation.

In the UK, the snowstorms that began a month ago have marked the earliest snowfall in recent memory. And last year's cold snap was the worst in 20 years. This week the UK will ask its chief scientific adviser if colder winters can be expected in the future, and if the nation should adjust its budget accordingly.

I for one hope the weather decides to calm down in the new year, since I have a lot of travel planned. To anyone I know trapped by the weather, especially my British friends snaking in lines around train stations in Brussels London and Paris waiting for a Eurostar, my deepest sympathies. Hopefully everyone will be able to get to where they need to go in the next three days. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The biggest problemn with Heathrow is that it hasn't been allowed to expand to the size it should be. It's the second biggest airport in the world (after Atlanta) and yet it only has two runways.