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A storm in December

A storm in December

December, the darkest month of the year, is also noted for its storms, and we have just had a big one. Neighbours meeting in the street were heard to say “Aye, it’s breezy oot today”, as the wind speeds in Edinburgh hit 70mph (113 Km/h). The winds on the top of Cairngorm reached 165mph (266 Km/h), just 8mph off the highest recorded wind speed there, although there was no standing about discussing the weather at the time.

Meanwhile on Twitter, as the storm broke, the London media started to gather information about something they where calling Storm UK, although this was soon replaced with Scot Storm, so as not to be confused with the “southern drizzle crisis”. The media wanted to portray the whole thing as a major crisis with tales of doom, gloom and crushed cars, which is the standard fare when such winter gales make landfall down south. Noting the wind speed recorded at the Cairngorm Automatic Weather Station, someone declared that Scotland was being battered by a Category Five Hurricane.

At this point it was decided that, if this was a hurricane, it should have a name, so some wag came up with Hurricane Bawbag (exactly who this wag was is a subject of much journalistic interest). Within an hour #HurricaneBawbag was trending worldwide on Twitter (as Americans sought to find out why they hadn’t been warned about this dangerous hurricane, and which state they needed to evacuate first). Meanwhile in Scotland most people had heeded the advice to stay indoors and not to travel at the height of the storm. As a result, there were no fatalities and no reported serious injuries. Overall the Scots’ attitude to the storm was to treat it as a tremendous joke, hence giving the storm the name Bawbag, which is used to mean a stupid, glaikit, foolish or generally annoying person (or thing). This is a point that has been somewhat missed by some media outlets based further south who are trying to make out that it was a great disaster. Whereas in Scotland it spawned a Wikipedia page and a range of merchandise.

So what actually happened?

At the height of the storm, one wind turbine failed spectacularly, at the Ardrossan Wind Farm. This has been portrayed by some sections of the London media as proof that all wind generation is doomed to fail, and that this should stop all further wind farm development. This is obviously ridiculous, as there are currently over 500 large scale wind turbines on 123 operational wind farms in Scotland, and only one failed during this storm. Nor was this failure responsible for the loss of power to 75,000 homes at the height of the storm, that was due to power lines being damaged. These London based “journalists” (several of the newspapers they work for have recently admitted to making up stories) are totally unaware that this particular wind farm is very popular with the local people living nearby. Nor are they keen on the idea that Scotland has the potential to be a world leader in renewable energy, as this just doesn’t fit with their London centric view of the world.

Transport wise there was some disruption, most of the major road bridges had to be closed for a time. The rail system was restricted to a 50 MPH (80 Km/h) speed limit, but the rail bridges remained open. This is probably due to that fact that Scotland’s major rail bridges are heavily over engineered following the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879. However, there were some delays due to trampolines on the line, which is more original than leaves on the line. Indeed, trampolines proved to be more disruptive than had been previously expected. Also there were a few roads blocked by fallen trees, and the Eriskay causeway was also temporarily closed. Other reported damage included a house in Gifford hit by a falling tree, the gable end of a tenement in Bellshill fell off (probably due to poor maintenance), and the roof of a cinema in Glasgow suffered some damage.

We are told the storm caused an estimated £100m worth of damage, but walking around Edinburgh in the days after Hurricane Bawbag (or cyclone Friedhelm, if you are a humourless German insist), one of the things that was notable was how little damage had been done, considering that this was the most severe storm to hit Scotland for 10 years. The only signs of storm damage I have seen so far has been a length of zinc flashing laying in a front garden and some severed TV aerial cables flapping about.

It is also worth noting that at the same time as this storm was battering Scotland, the United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place in Durban. If the climate models are right, storms like Hurricane Bawbag are set to become more frequent and more powerful, unless we take serious steps to cut the levels of fossil carbon we are releasing into the atmosphere.

Heavy Snow

Heavy Snow

The news on the BBC has been dominated by stories about “heavy snow” affecting England and Wales. Apparently snow fall of up to 15cm (yes a whole 15cm!!) have brought large parts of England to a grinding halt. Why?

When I hear of “heavy snow” I think back to winters past.

In February 2001 I got up one morning to find there had been a blizzard overnight and there was 1m of snow lying outside. At that time I was working at the Bush Estate near Edinburgh (home to a number of research institutes and a very famous sheep), and before setting out to work I decided to phone and check that the roads were clear out there. Instead of getting a ringing tone, I heard an error message and deduced, rightly, from this that the storm must have brought down the power line and the building would be closed. When I went in the next day, I found that there was a large “snow sculpture” by the bus stop. A number of my colleges, who hadn’t checked before catching the bus the day before, had arrived to find the building closed and had an hour to wait for the bus home, so they built the “snow sculpture” to keep themselves busy. After all, a meter of snow in winter in Scotland is not considered to be unusual, yet.

Thinking further back, I remember in my youth, when I was living in Sussex, taking great delight in taking out my bike and cycling through 18” (about 45cm) of fresh snow. This was great fun, although I did need to stop every so often to clear the snow from under the mudguards. The road which my family lived on was unadopted, so the local authority never cleared it. Consequently when it snowed, the snow was not cleared and was packed down by cars driving over it. When I came to learn to drive, I leaned under true winter conditions and have been happy driving in snow ever since.

Another winter in Sussex, I was working through a temp agency and found myself working on the bins. We were welcomed in the small villages, as the dustbin lorry was the first outside agency to arrive since the snow had started. In one house, the occupiers had had to climb out of an upstairs window in order to clear the snow from their front door. The snow had drifted up against the front of the house, covering the door and windows.

The most impressive snow drifts I have ever seen were in Norway. In the 1980’s I lived and worked on a farm in western Noway for three summers. In April 1985 I hitch hiked from Oslo to Hardanger. When I set out from Oslo, I was expecting to have to catch a train from Geilo, as the road to Eidfjord across the Hardangervidda was normally closed in winter. Instead, I was surprised to find the road open. That winter they had started using new snow blowing technology, and for the first time in history the road was kept open all winter. It was truly impressive, in places the road passed though 4m high snow drifts, it is something I will never forget.

So when I hear the BBC talking about 15cm (6”) as “heavy snow”, I can’t help thinking it ridiculous. As I have found from recent experience, I know that at least 20cm (8”) of snow is needed to form a ski piste and this amount never stops the skiers getting to the pistes. Let’s keep a sense of proportion. The major problem is that people are too reliant on cars, buses are better able to cope with the snow. If more people were to use public transport (and more effort was made to maintain public transport infrastructure), there would be less congestion and less vulnerability to such events.

Here in Edinburgh there has been very little snow so far this winter, but the weather forecast says that is about to change…

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