2005-11-16

Stats: Coldest Winter on it's Way?

The term 'winter of discontent' has become an outdated cliché, pilfered from Shakespeare's 'Richard III' to describe the harsher climes of past decades and the industrial unrest of the 1970s, but, if 'The Meteorological Office's' forecast for this winter proves true, we may find ourselves enduring the coldest winter for at least a decade -- possibly, some say, one of the coldest on record. Bearing in mind the Great British 'temperate' mindset, that has us grinding to a halt after a few mills of snow, and given our recent history of mild winters, how will we cope? The forecast -- which 'The Met Office' gives a 67 per cent accuracy rating -- has prompted alarm among health agencies, industrialists and motoring organisations, while agencies concerned with 'fuel poverty' among vulnerable householders are pointing to statistics which suggest more than 2_500 people in Scotland could die of cold-related conditions unless action is taken. So can we really expect this worst-case scenario? Mr.Wayne Elliott, a meteorologist and senior press officer with 'The Met Office', confirms predictions indicate a colder-than-average winter for much of Europe and, if they hold true, parts of the UK, especially southern regions, can expect temperatures below normal. The indications are also for a drier-than-average winter. While Mr.Elliott refuses to be drawn on press speculation on prolonged sub-zero temperatures, he does describe these as 'a significant possibility' but, while bookies have slashed the odds on a white Christmas, this is by no means a certainty.
'All we've said is it will be colder than average and also drier than average. 'We're not saying there is going to be 'feet' of snow, though there will undoubtedly be snow. 'It looks like southern parts of the UK will be most affected by the departure from normal temperatures. 'Scotland, obviously, is colder than England anyway, so, although it may have lower temperatures, it may not depart so much from the norm.'
The prediction method is based on what is known as 'The North Atlantic Oscillation' ('NAO'), an annual spring analysis of sea temperatures recorded off Iceland and the Azores, which has been proven to give a likelihood of temperatures in Europe the following winter.
'On two thirds of occasions, it gives good advice; on the third it's rubbish, but these are still very useful odds,' says Mr.Elliott.
But if that likelihood prevails, the impact could be greater because we have been lulled into a false sense of security.
'I believe society has changed over the last ten years since the last time we had a cold winter of any magnitude, so this is an effort to get the business energy customers and the government prepared,' says Mr.Elliott.
Amid images of snowbound roads and stranded motorists, a quick call to the Northern Constabulary finds them unfazed.
'The same kind of thing was mentioned last year and nothing came of it,' says a spokesman in Inverness. 'But our officers and our emergency planners are all well prepared for severe weather because they've had to deal with it in the past. 'You look back as far as maybe 1974 and 78 and we had 'feet and feet' of snow up here. 'When there are "severe weather warnings", we have set procedures we put in place, warning the public not to make unnecessary journeys and, if they do have to go out, to carry a flask of hot drinks, spade, torch and, of course, a mobile phone, in case they get stuck.'
Similarly, 'The AA', as it gears up for its busiest period in terms of breakdown calls, is issuing advice on winter driving and car maintenance. However, a spokesman for 'The AA Motoring Trust in England' was more concerned at the prospect of a very cold winter pushing up demand for heating oil, preventing the currently high oil prices from coming down as had been hoped:
'We could be living through the winter with higher fuel prices than we would normally expect.'
North of the Border, Mr.Neil Greig, of 'The AA Motoring Trust in Scotland', suggests a severe winter could be a testing time for 'The National Driver Information Control System' ('NADICS'), the traffic management service for Scotland's strategic road network, which gives traffic conditions and warnings via its website and electronic roadside signs.
'It's very important, before we get this bad weather, that "The Executive" looks closely at "NADICS" and makes sure its website is always up-to-date.'
A harsh winter could also provide a 'litmus' test for the all-important gritting services, privatised, along with road maintenance, by 'The Scottish Executive' in 2001. 'Bear Scotland', responsible for managing and maintaining over 2_500_km of trunk roads in north-west and North-east Scotland, has come in for 'flak' over its gritting and snow clearing performance in the past, but Mr.Andy Fraser, the company's winter maintenance manager for the north-west, is confident they can cope with any worst-case scenario:
'We've heard the stories that it's going to be a worse-than-average winter, but no-one's qualified that by saying whether they mean worse than usual snowfall, or whatever. In terms of temperatures, all our winter maintenance is based on preventative action based on daily and advance-warning forecasts, be it ice, frost or snow, and we monitor conditions round the clock. We're all geared up ready to go.'
The forecast has also raised the spectre of energy shortages, as domestic consumers turn up the heat. While talk of a return to the three-day week of the early 1970s has been dismissed as scaremongering by 'The Minister for Energy',Mr.Malcolm Wicks, a spokesman for 'The Confederation of British Industry' ('CBI') states:
'"The National Grid" have said that in one winter in ten, the amount of gas used by big companies would have to fall by 30 per cent, and in a one in 50 winter it would have to fall by 50 per cent. Obviously, this is of concern to businesses and it could have a significant impact on some major energy users.'
For some, however, heat can mean the difference between life and death, and last week the charity 'Energy Action Scotland' warned the combination of rising fuel prices and a cold winter could put thousands at risk. During 2005-10 'The Registrar General for Scotland' reported 2_760 more deaths during the winter of 2004/2005 compared to the period of 2004-08/2004-11 and 2005-04/2005-07. The main causes of these 'excess winter deaths' were respiratory and circulatory diseases and influenza. To this add 'Age Concern's' grim statistic that, every time the temperature drops one degree below average, 8_000 more elderly people die, while others such as those with heart problems or diabetes are also at risk.
'We're concerned at the prospect that every winter brings, and we're very concerned at this prospect of a bad one,' says Mr.Norman Kerr, director of 'Energy Action Scotland'. 'We know that, in terms of "fuel poverty", where people are having to spend more then 10 per cent of their income to stay warm, we're still looking at figures in excess of 286_000 households across Scotland where there is a continual struggle to warm their homes each year.'
Mr.Kerr points to 'The Scottish Executive's' 'Warm Deal' and central heating grant programmes, running since 1999 but scheduled to end next 2006-03.
'"The Executive" is committed to continuing these schemes. 'These have played a significant part in keeping people warm, but we've made some recommendations for greater flexibility that reflect the needs of Scotland's fuel-poor.'
But how prepared is central government for a big freeze? A spokesman for 'The Executive' insists it is well equipped for whatever the winter throws at us, and has been working closely with NHS boards to ensure the health service can handle any winter pressures. Further winter measures are to be announced at the end of 2005-11.
'Traditionally boards put in place a range of measures, including additional capacity, more equipment and extra staff, and good practice is shared across the country to help ensure everything that can be done to get ready for winter is done.'
She adds 'The Executive' is encouraging anyone over the age of 65 and those in risk groups such as those with diabetes, asthma or other chronic illness to arrange with their GPs for a free 'flu jab. The rest of us will just have to wait to discover soon enough the predictive accuracy of that sea change in the Azores. 'Are we ready to handle our bleakest winter yet? ', Jim Gilchrist, The Scotsman, 2005-11-16, We

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