Britain is used to defending itself against invading marauders. So when the call went out this week to fortify the nation once again to fend off a looming threat, the country seemed a bit surprised at the choice of weapon: snowmen.
Yes, snowmen. The rounder, the larger – the better. At least that was the advice given by Ron Stokes, a spokesman for the Environment Agency when he was asked how to best cope with rapidly melting snow expected this weekend as temperatures rise. "Ideally, if everybody built themselves a snowman that will slow the thaw down a bit," Mr. Stokes told a regional BBC radio station Wednesday. "If you notice, when people clear their drive the snow thaws away but the compacted piles stay, which will give a balanced thaw, which would be helpful."
After a barrage of phone calls and a host of gleeful media reports suggesting Britons assemble an army of snowpeople, the agency tried to clarify the advice. "How can I put it," one beleaguered official said. "Basically, what we're saying is that building a few snowmen is not going to stop our properties from flooding here in the U.K. But there is some science and logic behind the idea that when you compact snow – like building a snowman or driving over it in a car park for example – it does melt at a slower rate."
It has been that kind of January in Britain, and parts of Europe, with snow and cold weather turning a normally level-headed people into frightened masses facing threats from all kinds of evil such as "snow bombs," "snow monsters" and the "beast from the East."
"A potential Snow Monster approaches!" forecasters at the British Weather Services, a weather consulting firm, warned this week in a bulletin that called for 10 centimetres of snow in parts of Britain by Friday. The dire warning came with a picture of a wild-looking creature and the caption: "Don't get caught out by the Snow Monster." Other forecasters called the coming storm a "snow bomb" and predicted temperatures in some regions could fall as low as -20 C.
Britain's official weather service, The Meteorological Office, is now warning that a sudden jump in temperatures on the weekend, to around 10, could lead to flooding.
To be sure the nasty weather this month has taken a toll. Roughly 1,000 flights have been cancelled at Heathrow Airport this week and 5,000 schools closed. Economists have expressed fears the bad weather has slowed down retail sales, construction activity and travel so much that Britain's already struggling economy could be further weakened. And it's just as bad in other parts of Europe. The same weather has hit France, slashing airport traffic, delaying trains and cutting power to thousands of homes. Moscow has been facing freezing temperatures as well.
Some say the fretting has gone too far in Britain and that people are becoming a tad wimpy, especially when it comes to closing schools because of snow. Many parents have complained that schools in their area closed far too quickly given that most businesses remained open. And there have been suggestions principals are acting out of fear that if their school remained open and some students didn't show up, it could affect the school's attendance record, which is used in national rankings. The National Association of Head Teachers vigorously denied that, saying principals are only acting in the best interests of student safety. But some politicians have taken up the call for schools to rethink winter closures.
"We cannot have schools closing unnecessarily," Graham Stuart, a Conservative MP and chair of the House of Commons education committee, told the BBC. "A bit of snow in this country and we think 'Ah, disruption must come.' Well, perhaps it shouldn't come and we need to do more to resist it."
Heathrow Airport has also come under fire for not being better prepared and cutting the number of flights when the snow was forecast. The airport has spent about $60-million on snow equipment in the past couple of years, but still left thousands of passengers stranded this week. Airport officials said they did their best to clear runways and work with airlines on flight schedules.
There are those who have put the wintery weather to a good purpose. A group in Harrogate, Yorkshire, built an igloo in a local park and put it up for sale on eBay, describing it as "a smartly appointed, ground-floor, stand-alone studio apartment." So far, the bidding is at $900 and the proceeds will go to cancer research.