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Heavy snow puts U.K. in deep freeze

Blustery winter weather paralyzes Britain and parts of Europe, frustrating air travelers, stranding motorists and keeping thousands from their jobs and schools.
Image: A man walks in the cold in Britain
An emergency worker walks away from a fire station west of London, on Wednesday.Adrian Dennis / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Blustery winter weather paralyzed Britain and parts of Europe Wednesday, frustrating air travelers, stranding motorists and keeping thousands from their jobs and schools. London area airports — including Heathrow, Europe's busiest — suffered widespread delays and cancellations.

Forecasters blamed the prolonged cold snap on an arctic weather system that promises more cold weather through the month. Britain's weather office warned that, if the cold keeps up through the end of February, this will be the country's coldest winter in three decades.

"There is no sign of it coming to an end — it goes on as long as we can read into next week," warned Clare Allen of MeteoGroup, a private sector weather forecaster.

With the icy weather on the front page of all the major U.K. dailies ("BRRRITAIN!" shivered the Daily Mirror) some wondered what role if any climate change played in the cold snap — the country's longest since 1981. British opposition lawmaker Ann Winterton attracted jeers of derision when she told Britain's House of Commons that the snow "clearly indicates a cooling trend."

Weather experts said the bout of cold weather didn't necessarily reflect climate change one way or the other.

Robin Thwaytes, the duty forecaster at Britain's weather office, said that, while "it's very unusual for something like this to last as long as it has," such events do happen every 20 to 30 years.

Travel headaches
U.K. airports and rail services were badly hit. Heathrow's Web site reported more than 150 cancellations and all services out of London's Gatwick Airport were grounded. Eurostar — which caused travel chaos before Christmas when its trains broke down in a previous wintry spell — cut services from London to the continent.

Sections of the country's most important highways — including the M1, which links London and Leeds — were closed. The military was called in overnight to help rescue motorists when up to 1,000 vehicles were caught in a snow-related traffic jam in Hampshire, in southern England.

London's transit network, which practically ground to a halt when snow hit the capital last February, suffered sporadic disruptions and delays. Crowds were lighter than expected as many people stayed home.

British winters are typically mild, and cities and towns are generally ill-equipped to deal with heavy snowfall. With the worst-hit areas buried under up to a foot and a half of snow, officials and road crews were struggling to keep up. Several local governments were running out of sand and salt — with the seaside town of Scarborough in northern England raiding its beachfront for extra sand.

Police forces ordered bus services to stop and urged drivers to stay off the roads in a bid to keep streets and highways clear of traffic.

Record cold in Norway
Icy weather struck elsewhere in Europe, including Scandinavia, where temperatures plummeted to minus 42 degrees Fahrenheit early Wednesday morning at Roros Airport in Norway's mountainous central region.

It was the coldest reading recorded in mainland Norway since 1987, and the freeze was so deep that conventional liquid deicers were ineffective. Air traffic control chief Lise Faksvaag Dukan told national broadcaster NRK that frost had to be removed from the planes manually, using space heaters.

Snows in northern Denmark have hit road, rail, and air traffic, and the Danish army has mobilized to help emergency vehicles cut their way through drifts.

Freezing temperatures gripped Germany, with huge parts of the country covered in snow on Wednesday. In the early morning hours, temperatures reached a low of minus 7.6 degrees Fahrenheit in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt.

The snow even piled sufficiently high to fool a car owner: An 89-year-old man arriving from a vacation in the U.S. at an airport in the German city of Dresden reported his car stolen — only to have security personnel find it "under a considerable amount of snow" a few hours later.

False alarm
Elsewhere the weather was more moderate.

Dutch police divers and helicopters were briefly scrambled when a group of skaters was feared to have fallen through the ice on a lake north of Amsterdam. Authorities eventually said it was a false alarm. Despite official warnings, 5,000 people took part in a mass skating tour of the frozen Henschoter Lake near the central town of Woudenberg.

France and Switzerland were largely unaffected by the chill, with a light dusting of snow on the ground in Geneva and a series of winter weather warnings issued for western France.