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.”
Temperatures in the low teens across Ireland are causing hardship not only for people but for animal and bird life. Scores of sheep have been lost in deep snow in the mountains of Kerry in the southwest, deer in the Wicklow Hills in the east are breaking into gardens to find edible plants and huge flocks of redwings have been observed by birdwatchers heading out into the Atlantic on a suicidal search for unfrozen ground. Bird watchers have also spotted several rare Arctic species, such as the little auk, brought in by the polar winds.
Environment minister John Gormley of the Green Party, who heads a government emergency committee, said that the country was now in the grip of the longest cold spell since 1963. He said that in three weeks the nation had used up a year’s supply of road salt. With unprecedented demand for sodium chloride from across frigid Europe, Spanish suppliers cannot guarantee another shipment until next week, according to Tadgh Healy, managing director of Ireland International Trading Corporation, which imports Ireland’s road salt via Cork. What was unusual he said was that demand was not localized but from every single one of the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland.
In Dublin, where the midday temperature on Thursday did not rise above 25 degrees, according to the Weather Channel, the city council redeployed 500 staff to help remove ice and snow from areas of high pedestrian use, such as O’Connell Street and Grafton Street. However the council’s chief engineer Michael Phillips said there would be no salting of most footpaths and secondary routes due to low stock levels.
“While you know there’s going to be snow in Dublin, you don’t know the exact locations, so there’s no point in wasting salt, which is in scare commodities these days,” he said.
Emergency wards are dealing with a big number of casualties due to sidewalk ice according to Fergal Hickey, president of the Irish Association of Emergency Medicine. In Sligo, where several people cracked their skulls after losing their footing, there was a tenfold increase in accident patients, he said. Letterkenny Hospital has been struggling to keep up with supplies of screws and plates to insert into fractured wrists and ankles.
Forecaster Vincent O’Shea of Ireland’s weather service, Met Eireann, said there was no end in sight to the cold spell. The next seven days are “looking rather ominous,” he warned, because the Siberian windflow and Arctic temperatures will remain for at least that length of time, and probably beyond.