Brrr: Parents fight for sleds as Europe shivers

  • Fri Jan 8th, 2010 12:19pm
  • News

By Angela Charlton and Juergen Baetz Associated Press

PARIS — Snow settling near France’s Mediterranean shores. German parents battling to buy sleds. British horse races called off over too much ice.

A European cold snap — awfully cold in some places — saw snow clog roads and airports today, knock out electricity and induce hoorays from schoolchildren kept home from school.

The low temperatures, prompted by an Arctic weather system, are set to continue through the weekend.

Britain, already deep in its longest cold spell in nearly 30 years, registered its chilliest night yet this season: minus minus 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit in the Scottish Highlands village of Altnaharra.

British authorities have used up so much grit on icy roads that today they started to run out, leaving thousands of secondary roads and sidewalks untreated and turning them into sheets of black ice that stretched for blocks. Poland, too, saw shortages of salt for using on streets.

Gatwick Airport officials said 18,000 tons of snow had been removed from runways in recent days. A dozen flights were canceled out of Marseille-Provence airport in southern France.

France’s weather service issued an avalanche warning for the Alps and the Pyrenees for this weekend after days of heavy snowfall and strong winds. Some travelers abandoned plans to head to the ski slopes because of closed roads.

Last weekend, avalanches killed seven people in Switzerland at the start of its ski season.

For desperate parents from Britain to Berlin, the biggest challenge hasn’t been snow-choked roads but finding a sled.

Manufacturers of all types of snow-slipping vehicles, from traditional wooden-runner sleds to plastic bobsleds with breaks are thrilled at the boom after years of fearing they had become victims of global warming.

“There hasn’t been a run on sleds like this one since at least 25 years,” said Michael Ress, owner Ress Kutschen sled factory in Schwebheim, Germany.

Ress’ eight employees are currently working at maximum capacity, putting together 100 beech-wood sleds per day. The entire forthcoming production of this season’s 3,000 sleds, which go for euro35 ($50), has already been sold in advance.

“We’re running out of supplies,” said Ress, adding that he was forced to order certain metal parts from Asia because his usual German suppliers were out of stock.

In London, the harsh weather dominated today’s Cabinet meeting. British union officials pleaded with employers to offer hot drinks to people working outside. A charity call center set up to help the elderly cope with the snow and ice was shut down because workers could not get to the office.

Deep snow in Lanarkshire, Scotland, left Alec Allison using a tractor to clear it from the roads of his farm. But that didn’t help his sheep. At one point, he used a long stick to search snowdrifts where he found and freed one of his sheep.

In Merseyside in northwest England, construction workers helped rescue a flock of swans trapped in a frozen lake. The RSPCA animal welfare organization said it had received about 100 calls since Wednesday reporting ducks and swans stuck in ice on ponds and lakes.

In France, snow piled up from Normandy to Marseille on the Mediterranean shore. Nearly a foot of snow fell on Arles and Avignon in southern France, according to the regional traffic center, and snowdrifts piled higher than 3 feet. Snowstorms cut electricity to thousands of homes.

Much of Spain was also shivering. A nature park in the normally temperate Murcia region in the southeast turned on heaters at a pen housing three giraffes more accustomed to savannah-like climes.

In the Catalonia region centered on Barcelona, snowy conditions prevented 72 schools from reopening after the Christmas vacation, providing an extra day off for more than 16,000 children.

Heavy rains caused flooding across central and southern Italy. Northern Italy was blanketed by snow, while Venice faced the “acqua alta” phenomenon — exceptionally high tides which often flood most of the lagoon city in winter.

In Sweden, temperatures dropped to well below freezing, putting a strain on the country’s energy supplies.

Norway is facing its lowest temperatures in more than two decades.

Train companies, including the cross-Channel Eurostar, were running reduced service. A Eurostar train traveling from Brussels to London broke down Thursday in the Channel Tunnel, but the head of the French train authority SNCF, Guillaume Pepy, said it “was linked to signal problems that have nothing to do with the cold.”

That was a relief to commuters because last month Eurostar came to a standstill for days because of train breakdowns that left thousands of passengers stranded in the tunnel. Why? The company identified the problem as unusually dry, powdery snow that got into the trains’ engines.

Heavy goods traffic between Switzerland and Italy was halted for several hours today as authorities closed the Gotthard and San Bernardino tunnels because of dangerous weather conditions. The route is one of Europe’s busiest for trucks passing from France, Germany and Britain to the ports of Italy and beyond.

The cold is freezing out sporting types, too. Three British Premier League football matches Saturday have been postponed, and 10 of 16 matches in the Scottish Cup were called off. Two horse racing events — at Newcastle and Kelso next week — have been called off because of heaps of snow on already-frozen tracks.