Snow in Winter – Shock for Europe

Snow! Hit the Panic Button


PARIS — It snows in winter. This shattering discovery has now cast Britain and France into chaos for a week, with London’s dysfunctional Heathrow airport leading British claims to be officially designated a third-world nation.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Brits have been glued to the radio listening to people like the director of Alaska’s Anchorage airport describe how, with the help of vehicles called snowplows and stuff called de-icing fluid, it’s actually possible in the 21st century to keep an airport open after a snowstorm.

As much has proved beyond Heathrow and the U.K. airports operator BAA, whose elaborate Christmas production, “Fiasco,” follow-up performance, “Debacle,” and grand finale, “Collapse,” have left thousands of passengers stranded and tens of thousands fuming at the world’s biggest international hub. Colin Matthews, the BAA chief executive, has decided to “give up my bonus for the current year” to focus on “getting people moving.”

Well, gosh, that’s good of you, sir. It’s true that at a certain point cutting costs to increase BAA margins and so boost your bonus does conflict with “getting people moving,” especially when the cuts mean no investment in the equipment airports need when it snows. British Airways alone has canceled more than 2,000 flights.

Heathrow is the hub that makes you blub.

The French meanwhile have been blaming the government for their own mega-production, “Catastrophe.” Can there really be, in nanny-state France, a government unable to predict snow in winter or deal with it? Pas possible!

What we are witnessing on either side of the Channel is the double whammy of a debt-ridden public sector making cuts wherever it can and a bonus-addicted private sector making cuts wherever it’s profitable — with the resultant disaster foisted on a general public now so cowed and coddled and fearful and risk-averse in the age of terror and technology that an inch or two of snow sends everyone into a blind panic.

Add to that dismal stew a pinch of global warming, which some people, including Matthews, apparently took to mean the end of European winters, and you end up with the current farce. Europe, thy name is pitiful. When the budgetary cuts really bite next year, all bets are off.

I can report, having been there, that it did snow in London last Friday and Saturday. The snowfall bore about the same relation to a blizzard as a gentle breeze does to a gale. It snowed a few inches for a few hours. After that it remained cold, an unreasonable thing in winter, I know, but not unprecedented.

That Friday evening, Dec. 17, my children were leaving on a British Airways flight from Heathrow to New York. They sat on the plane for five-and-a-half hours waiting for it to be de-iced. But they did leave. Others were less fortunate. Jane Weist, on a Miami-bound BA flight that evening, sat for six hours only to return to the terminal. She was still there three days later trying to escape a departure lounge littered with mattresses, blankets, pillows — and the terminally enraged.

“It can’t be beyond the wit of man surely to find the shovels, the diggers, the snowplows or whatever it takes to clear the snow out from under the planes,” suggested Boris Johnson, the mayor of London.

Yes, Boris, it’s beyond the wit of man.

Five days after the above-mentioned snow flurry, Heathrow was still busy canceling flights. As for Eurostar and Eurotunnel, which ferry passengers by train through the Channel Tunnel, they’ve also undergone near-implosion. Delayed six hours at Folkestone awaiting the Eurotunnel service, I was told eight out of 10 trains had broken.

I dared to ask why. “It’s the snow, sir.” This was three days after it snowed — and in a tunnel!

French anger has focused on the Interior Minister, Brice Hortefeux, who has become a laughing stock. In the Parisian gridlock, he declared, there was “no mess, and the proof is it took the prefect three minutes to get here!” That was when it took my colleague Richard Berry 13 hours to drive the 50 miles from office to home. Do the math: that’s an average of about four miles an hour. It would have been about as quick, if chilly, to walk.

Apparently, if you don’t want to blame greed or the cuts or Matthews or the breakdown of the French state, you can blame the North Atlantic oscillation. That, for the uninitiated, is the difference of atmospheric pressure at sea level between the Icelandic low and the Azores high. When the difference is low, Arctic air penetrates Europe. That happened a lot in the 1960s. Now it’s happening again.

This, according to some, is the result of global warming. So if all else fails, blame global warming for the freeze.

Some Brits aren’t buying it. The Guardian’s George Monbiot reported angry calls: “It’s minus 18C and my pipes have frozen. You liar. Is this your global warming?”

Not exactly: It’s the age of pass-the-buck, blame-anybody-but-yourself technology-induced, pasty-faced, initiative-starved helplessness in a Europe that’s forgotten what a shovel looks like.

Happy holidays, everyone. See you in 2011.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on December 24, 2010, in The International Herald Tribune.