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Page last updated at 13:40 GMT, Monday, 2 February 2009

10 ways to cope with snow

Car makes its way through snow

A deluge of overnight snow has left much of Britain paralysed, with airports closed, schools shut, normally-busy roads impassable and train lines all but empty. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Heavy snow is a regular occurrence in parts of continental Europe and northern areas of Scotland. Even in southern England, snow and Arctic conditions punctuated winters in the middle of the 20th Century. But how did they handle it then, and how do they cope with it now?

In Tromso, in the very north of Norway, they are ready for snow, says Sture Medby, of the city's municipal council. Much of the snow clearing is done on the main streets overnight, so drivers wake up to a magically clear path to work. Lesser streets are then done by the end of the morning. People with large sites can pile their own snow up, some clean snow is thrown in the sea and snow can be taken in lorries outside the city.
Snow plow in Tromso
All in a day's work: A snow plough at work in Tromso

There are snow ploughs outside the city, diggers inside and "rotary snow cutters". The pavement on the High Street and certain key side streets are heated by pumping seawater through pipes underneath. And a big part of why life continues as normal is that car transport continues as normal. People put on spiked winter tyres on 15 October and take them off again on 1 May. It's the law.

One thousand miles away, in Aberdeen, Donald Morrison has proof that Britain is not always inept when it comes to handling heavy snow. While airports in the south of England have shut up shop due to the extreme weather, Mr Morrison is answerable for BAA's Scottish concerns, including Aberdeen airport, in the far north east of the country. When the snow is more than a brief flurry, it requires constant attention to keep services running, he says. At Aberdeen there is a team on standby 24 hours a day from October to March in anticipation of snow.

Mr Morrison says it is not just about clearing the runway but also the areas where the planes taxi to and from the runway. "It's about constantly keeping the ground clear. It helps that Aberdeen is a relatively small campus, unlike Heathrow."

Arild Hausberg, mayor of Tromso, is perplexed by the notion of snow causing serious disruption. "The snow isn't a problem. We are prepared for it. We have it from October until May. To live here you have to see snow as a usual thing. But many people do complain."
Tromso and Aberdeen map
Tromso and Aberdeen: Both adept at dealing with a spot of snow

Karl-Osvald Saeboe, headmaster of the Reinen Skole in Tromso, laughs at the notion that the school would close because of snowfall. Indeed he can think of only one occasion when this has happened.

"Once in 1998 we had to close because we got one-and-half metres of snow in two or three hours. The roads were blocked." But even on Tromso's record snow depth day in April 1997, the school got through.

"There was two metres 40 of snow and we never had to close." With eight months of snow a year, everybody in Tromso is used to it and gets on. If they don't like the snow, or the logistical challenges, they move away. "We are used to the winter. It is a way of living. I can see hundreds of pupils outside my window playing in the snow and having a lot of fun. It is in our culture. We dream of the snow. I'm glad I'm living here. In summer we sometimes wish it was cold and snowy again. In the winter we sometimes dream about summer.

Even the best prepared people will one day be faced by such extreme weather that they have to give in and accept a high degree of disruption. Tromso is notable even within Norway for being a snowy place, and everybody there remembers 29 April 1997 - the day the snow finally overwhelmed the city. On flat ground there lay 2.4m of snow - enough to bury most of the landscape.

"People gave in then and a kind of madness occurred," says Mr Medby. "They gave up [the ground floor] and went right into the first floor, they went skiing in the streets and cars stayed where they were. People put a pole and a flag up on the car to say underneath is a car."

Cra stuck in snow
Before the days of the Chelsea tractor - snowfall in 1947
"I'm not seeing much Dunkirk spirit out there," says Robert Penn, co-author of The Wrong Kind of Snow: The Complete Daily Companion to the British Weather, observing on the rolling news channels the unfolding chaos of Monday night's downfall. Compare it with how people coped during the winters of 1947 or 1963.

The latter saw 60 days of Siberian weather, says Mr Penn. As a measure of how bad things got, he summons to mind a news report of a "woman in Leicestershire carrying bread rolls who was knocked down by a flock of starved pigeons". In many ways people just demanded less.

"People expect too much now. In 1963 about five weeks went by without a first division football match. The Pools almost went bust. These days the big clubs all have under-pitch heating. We just expect games to go ahead."

It helps if people know the drill in the event of a flurry of the white stuff. As the north east of Scotland is the area in the UK most prone to snowfall, schools there close regularly in winter. To deal with this, Aberdeenshire council has come up with a way of making it easier for parents to know what is going on. Early in the morning, headteachers call an automated message service if they have decided to close their school for the day. Parents can then phone up, enter a pin number specific to their child's school and to find out if it is shut.

Frost fair on the Thames
Enjoying the cold 17th Century-style: The Great Frost Fair

For hundreds of years, in what was called the Little Ice Age between 1350 and 1850 - freezing winters were a fact of life in the British Isles. In 1673 Dover and Calais were joined by ice, says Mr Penn, and the freezing of the River Thames in London in 1684 led to that year's Great Frost Fair. "There was a huge town in the middle of the river. There were shops, bars, horse and coach races, bull baiting. I think they even had a fox hunt on the ice."

It's one thing to flap and flounder as the snow piles higher, it's another to see the experience as a learning process. England's freezing winters of the 17th Century lead to a demand for insulation in homes and greater comfort, in the shape of curtains and upholstery, says Mr Penn, while the winter of '47 had some hand in ushering in central heating in homes. "[Central heating] was invented by the Romans and then we forgot about it for a couple of thousand years, until mid-way through the 20th Century."

In Tromso, for an upcoming celebration of Sami culture and reindeer race, snow will be moved into the city centre and then removed afterwards. For a cross country skiing competition soon afterwards the same procedure will be gone through.

Head to Singapore where there is no record of snow fall. The coldest it is likely to get there is around 20C but beware the almost constant humidity instead.

Below is a selection of your comments.

We seem to be getting worse at coping. Growing up in the Lake District in the 70s and 80s I remember regular snowfalls of about 6". It didn't stop people going to work and I don't remember ever having a day off school because of snow (some chance). The bus couldn't get too far into the countryside, but it ran along the main roads from which you walked. I think we've lost the British spirit to want to cope - it's somebody elses problem to sort us out now-a-days.
Steve Hopwood, Norwich

Having recently moved from the North to the South it has been amusing me all morning how such a small amount of snow causes such chaos down here. We have perhaps a centimetre of snow and half the staff haven't turned up and yet I received an email from home describing 5-6 inches as "a bit of a pain". Its all about peoples perceptions and what we are used to, no amount of preparation will make people act normally in a snow event if they have not had to deal with it regularly.
Robert Sunley, Maidstone, Kent

Similar situation occurred in February 1989... my husband went on a walking holiday to Scotland with a friend where the snow was up to the window sills. They managed to get out and about although London ground to a halt on about one inch of the fluffy white stuff. In the Peak District people cope, my 15 mile journey this morning over the tops was fairly uneventful and only took about 10 minutes longer than usual. All credit to the highways people here and in Sheffield for well-gritted roads.
Judy Coldwell, Hope Valley, Derbyshire UK

When I was a child, the village we lived in used to get cut off. No water, no electricity. You were lucky if the water board managed to get bowsers of water to you, and when they did, people's didn't go mental over it, they'd make sure everyone had some, particularly the elderly. Dad used to put chains on the wheels of his car, but we could easily go a week without getting out of the village. We'd just prepare to deal with it and enjoy having nothing better to do than sledge as a community, build snow men, drink hot chocolate and warm-up/dry off around a gas fire. Bring on the real snow!
James B, Sheffield, UK

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