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Snowy Ireland runs out of salt, but not broken bones

Ireland has been gripped by its longest cold spell since 1963.

A scene near the author's home last month. (Conor O'Clery/GlobalPost)

DUBLIN, Irelan ― Snow in Ireland is like the best type of house guest: It comes very seldom and when it does, it usually remains for just two or three days.

So while most people in Ireland were happy when unfamiliar snowy weather arrived in mid-December, it is a different story now that it has stayed and developed into a record deep freeze. In fact it has become a national emergency with many country roads remaining impassable for weeks, public transport disrupted in cities and salt supplies exhausted.

Then on Wednesday, Dublin was paralyzed by a snowfall that forced buses off the road and caused the closure of a majority of the schools as road surfaces turned into sheets of ice. Hospitals in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway are busy treating a record number of fractured limbs from people falling on ice. Lakes in the normally temperate west of Ireland have frozen for the first time in living memory and teenagers have been driving all-terrain vehicles on the ice on Lake Mourne in County Donegal despite warnings from the police of the dangers.

Prolonged cold spells in this normally rain-soaked island on the Atlantic are so rare that people still talk about the “Big Snow” of 1947, which lasted seven weeks and caused the ground to freeze so hard that the dead could not be buried.

“This cold spell is going on and on and could very well break records,” said Ray Bates, adjunct professor of meteorology at University College Dublin. Ireland rarely has snowfall, he explained, “because during the summer the Atlantic stores heat which it gives off in winter and the prevailing south west winds pick up that heat and brings it to us in the winter.”

This is not happening now because of a high pressure system over the European mainland that is blocking the south-westerlies. This in turn is caused by an anomaly in the jet stream, which Bates predicted could “stay still over a given point for ages.”