Category Archives: weather

Snowmageddon 2012: The aftermath

It has snowed here in England, about a week ago, and it has left a legacy (I’m sure) of broken bones and trips to A&E due to snow becoming ice. I would love to see the official statistics. There is an (unfortunately) popular myth in England that bad things might happen (legally) if you clear the snow from the sidewalk (AmE)/pavement (BrE) outside your house. It happens to be untrue. The government says:

And don’t believe the myths – it’s unlikely you’ll be sued or held legally responsible for any injuries if you have cleared the path carefully.

But it seems to be ingrained in the British psyche that it is better to not remove snow from the footpaths in front of one’s home or business in keeping to some legal myth that not clearing the snow is the better outcome. Americans, and as far as I can tell, those from many other countries, are used to a law whereas not removing the snow is a legal offense and tickets and fines can result.

As an end effect of the mythology of snow removal from sidewalks in England leading to negative legal consequences, we have this situation, several days after a snow:

And the uncleared footpaths turn to ice, which is how I managed to totally wipe-out and fall on my arse on my way to work a full 5 days after the snow. I have pain in both a wrist and a hip after falling, although I was lucky to fall in an intersection where I was able to catch myself partially on a metal pole. More shockingly from my perspective, considering the ice in front of houses is that even businesses do not clear the way:

This was in front of my local grocery store. This is ridiculous. In most jurisdictions where snow occurs (including the US state of Minnesota but also many others as is evident from my twitter friends) it is actually illegal to leave snow outside your premises (home or business) and you can get ticketed and/or fined for not removing the snow. In some places, the city or local council will remove the snow for you after some number of hours and send you a bill for not having done your civic duty and making the footpaths safe.

England, it’s time to step up and deal with your snow issues. Leaving a pedestrian-based city an ice-rink is not acceptable.

Snowmageddon 2012

It snowed last night in England. The sort of snow that I actually quite like, because it takes place at temperatures not too far from freezing, and is thus fun to build snow-people with. And the temperatures not too far from freezing means that while it’s happening, a girl can go outside and enjoy the experience of catching snowflakes on the tongue, a la the Peanuts characters in the Christmas cartoon special. No big deal, right?

Wrong. This is England, so snow is treated as the Snowpocalypse. As of yesterday afternoon, before it was actually snowing, 1/3 of today’s flights at Heathrow airport were cancelled. Warnings were issued. Grocery stores took on that air of menace whereas people were cleaning the shelves.

I am familiar with this phenomenon, because I have also experienced snow in Virginia and in Washington DC, where it is as infrequent and as difficult to manage as in England. There is a lack of infrastructure for dealing with such things that causes any flakes that fall to turn into a major incident. And this amuses me, as a girl from Minnesota where we are far more accustomed to such things.

I have these flashbacks to Minnesota days, in which a prediction of snow came with a great deal of organizing. For one, a “Snow Emergency” was likely to be declared, which meant concerns over which side of the city street on which to park for days after the event. None of which was helped by the requirement that my car be not in my apartment’s car park over an eight hour stretch in order for that to be cleared. The logistical challenge of parking one’s car in three different places after a snow-storm was always taxing. But it reminded me that at least in Minnesota we did something about the snow. As far as I can tell, in England it is just something to talk about.

It stopped snowing overnight, and as such by this evening was a thing of the past. Except for the fact that it all, at this point, is sitting largely where it fell. No effort has been made to clear the car park at my flat, nor has anyone even bothered to shovel the walkways leading into my flat. I can see now that walking to work tomorrow will be a slippery and dangerous challenge.

And here we have the great irony of snow in England. Much talked about, but little acted on. The BBC website this morning was full of stories of people trapped in cars on the major freeways at a dead standstill for hours, and even overnight. But we all knew it was coming, the forecasts were quite clear. Why was anyone out in a car on a motorway, knowing full well that it was coming? And having happened, exactly as predicted, why has no one made any effort to remove the snow? Shovels are not exactly expensive. Ice in the coming days will only be a hazard because no one bothered to move the snow that did fall.

And really, it was not that much. A few inches here, and in temperatures, as noted above, not too far from freezing. As far as I can tell, England collectively loves the drama of the “chaos” caused by a few inches of semi-frozen precipitation. Twitter was, this morning, full of photos of back yards with a light dusting and snow-people having been constructed in public places. But in the grand scheme of things, it was only a hugely dramatic event because people wanted it to be that way. In England, people love to talk about the weather. And the joke is that normally the weather is quite unremarkable. Apparently when it is ever-so-slightly remarkable, the taste for hyperbole overwhelms even the most sensible of persons.

My evidence: the result of “heavy snow” in my neighborhood. It apparently paralyzed all but the mouths and typing fingers of the locals.

Vacation, Interrupted

I know I have been quite quiet lately. There is, of course, a good reason. And regular readers of this blog will have been able to guess what happened.

I went to the US for my usual August holiday, to see my friends and family in Minnesota and to go to the beach for the only proper holiday I take in any given year. (And even then I typically work at least 1.5 days per week because, well, that’s the nature of my job, it never stops, not even in a European August.) I managed to completely ruin all of my Minnesota plans by losing my wallet in the Milwaukee airport en route, and thus did not have a car and completely changed where I was staying and what I was doing. This was not all bad, I might add, as it contributed to the great vacation skill acquired on this trip: I learned to knit. But that is a story for another day. What is important for this story is that I was heading to the beach for two weeks of idyllic paradise and relaxation after what had been a somewhat discombobulating Minnesota experience.

Beach day 0: Pack my beach things into my beach friends’ car and drive from the DC area down to the North Carolina Outer Banks. Arrive late morning after an ungodly early start, have a nice beach arrival lunch, pick up the beach house keys and pack in to the beach house. After unloading and settling in, head for a walk (just a mile up the beach and back) and cook dinner.

Beach day 1: Have a nice long walk on the beach (3 miles up the beach and back) and food and etc.

Beach day 2: Have a long day on the beach, swim, surf. Happen to be sitting on the beach when an earthquake happens not far away, and totally feel it. Start to become aware that in addition to the earthquake, there might be hurricane trouble coming.

Beach day 3: Obsessively read weather.com and outer banks websites, knowing that the hurricane is coming. Try to enjoy the beach regardless, have another 6 mile beach walk. Total beach miles to date: 14.

Beach day 4: Awake to an impending sense of doom with regards to the hurricane. Read weather.com obsessively over coffee. Happen to be on the local website the moment the mandatory evacuation order is posted. Change out of PJs and pack out of beach house. Arrive back in DC area in early evening to prepare for hurricane.

(non)Beach day 5: Hurricane preparedness. Buy bottled water and canned goods.

(non)Beach day 6: Hurricane. Play board games and wait out the storm.

(non)Beach day 7: post-Hurricane. Go for a long walk in the sunshine, see many downed tree branches but otherwise feel as though the whole thing had not happened.

(non)Beach day 8: Waiting day. Spend the day working and regularly refreshing the Outer Banks news to see if there would be a resumption to beach 2011. Find out at 3 pm that vacationers will be allowed back at 10 am the following morning.

Beach day 9: Groundhog day. Take beach day 0 and repeat. Pack the car, drive 300 miles, have lunch while waiting for the all-clear to re-enter the beach house, pack in and settle in for a nice evening.

Beach day 10: Back to paradise, right? Except the beaches were closed to swimming due to trees and other debris. Long walk (6 miles) and dinner.

Beach day 11: repeat of beach day 10. Still no swimming, but lots of impressive driftwood, if by driftwood you mean entire trees littered along the beach. Another 6 miles of walking and documenting.

Beach day 12: Finally, some swimming.

Beach day 13: Swimming and another 6 mile walk. BUT time to start packing, as it’s over.

Beach day 14: Pack up and move out.

Total beach miles walked: 32. Not bad given the circumstances. Number of days spent in the Atlantic surf: 3. Pathetic for a two week holiday. Books read: 2. Far below the usual standard, but that’s because I spent four days transiting between DC and North Carolina. Not to mention all of the packing.

Silver lining: I had an adventure and have a story to tell. The beach where I was, in the northern Outer Banks near the Virginia border, was virtually unscathed. We had power at the beach when friends in Baltimore and Boston had none. I worked on my new-found knitting skill, which is, as I mentioned, a story for another day.

Moral of the story: Do not vacation in the outer banks if you are averse to hurricane evacuations. That’s two years in a row for me, Earl in 2010 and Irene in 2011. Earl was better timed, in that it was at the end of my two weeks, while Irene was as inconvenient as possible. But, she says as a scientist can only do, statistically I am unlikely to be this unlucky next year, after two forced evacuations in a row. Yes, the Outer Banks are totally worth the effort, and I will continue to take my holidays there. Hurricanes are just part of the adventure.

I’m back in England now, and the paperwork battles for my visa are now in full swing. This holiday was supposed to be the stress-free vacation before the paperwork storm, and it did not end up like that. First Milwaukee, then Irene. But I’m stuck with the mantra “anything that does not kill you can only make you stronger” and so here I go into the next phase of life. Wish me luck with the paperwork and hopefully my next beach vacation will involve 14 full days of beach bliss.

The perfect storm

Last weekend there was a huge snowstorm in my home town of Minneapolis. This was newsworthy mostly for the fact that the Metrodome roof caved in, causing all of my friends in the UK to think of Minneapolis, which they had never really heard of before, as the place where large engineering objects fall apart unexpectedly–first the bridge, now the dome. (If you haven’t seen the snow-dome-collapse viral video on youtube it’s highly recommended…) The Minnesota Vikings had to play a “home” game in Detroit last Monday, and they are playing their final home game of the year tomorrow at the University of Minnesota football stadium, which is open-air and thus had to be shoveled out this week by an army of volunteers.

Yesterday, there was a snowstorm in Britain. NB I did not say a “huge” snowstorm. Where I am we only saw an inch, maybe an inch and a half. The official snow total at Heathrow airport was 9 cm. So a few inches. Minnesota, in contrast, got 17 inches in their storm. At Heathrow, temperatures after the snowfall “plummeted” to -5C/23F. In Minnesota, temperatures really did plummet as windchills got down to -40F (I can’t find the actual low temperature but you get the point). The airport serving the Twin Cities, MSP, actually closed for a few hours for one of the few times in recent memory. British airports mostly all closed down, including Heathrow and Gatwick. But that was yesterday. This morning I woke up to the news that Heathrow was still closed. And in the last few hours it’s become clear that this might take quite some time to sort out. Gatwick is apparently up and running, but Heathrow–the British Airways flagship airport with the brand new 5th Terminal–is not. Hmmm.

As a frequent traveller, and someone who takes frequent trips on BA out of Heathrow, I’ve been watching this with a great deal of interest. As of yesterday it was clear that the actual runway was not the problem, which is in stark contrast to the MSP closure. The Heathrow website has had variations on this message posted all day:

This morning, we listened carefully to the advice of our airside operations team and reluctantly judged that while Heathrow’s northern runway remains clear, the change in temperature overnight led to a significant build up of ice on parking stands around the planes and this requires parts of the airfield to remain closed until it is safe to move planes around.

So let’s recap, the snow cleared out late yesterday afternoon, the runway is clear, but not a single gate at Heathrow is in use or can be used. Heathrow now seems to be saying that delays and cancellations will last well into the week. Apparently 200,000 people were due to go through Heathrow today. Via Twitter I just saw that over a hundred flights have landed at Gatwick and over a hundred flights have departed Gatwick. Wait a minute….

I admit it: I simply find it implausible that they could not have cleared out even a single gate at Heathrow and started to try and move a few flights in and out, assuming what they say about the runway is correct. (And I believe it is: why would Gatwick’s runway be able to function when Heathrow a mere 44 miles away could not?) Something else is going on. And I want to know what it is. Did BAA and/or BA decide that the only way to avoid melee was to make everyone suffer equally by canceling all flights? Do they really not have the equipment and know-how to resume partial operations more than 24 hours after a relatively minor snow storm? I’ve seen excuses flying around all day on Twitter about how the UK does not normally get weather like this and thus is not prepared when it comes, but that sounds a little hollow in my ears since the last major snowstorm here was… two weeks ago. And last year the country was crippled for weeks by snow. You can say what you like about this being unusual, but apparently this is the third year in a row of this type of weather, are the bosses running operations at Heathrow just hoping after each storm that it’s the last for a while, so they don’t have to get the proper equipment for dealing with snow and cold weather? Weather patterns shift. There was a time (Victorian times, to be precise) when you could ice skate on the Thames. Perhaps this IS normal English winter weather and the previous mild years were the anomaly. Perhaps it’s time to stop pretending that the climate here is tropical and to work on snow and winter preparedness, which are clearly things that can be done because of the simple proof-by-existence of airports that function in the winter in places like Minnesota. Yes, that might cost money. But so too must being one of the world’s busiest airports and being closed for several days the week of Christmas.

It will be interesting to watch this play out in the next few days. I have several friends due to travel trans-Atlantically tomorrow, and my fingers are crossed for them. I’ve been watching travel sagas playing out on Twitter today, where a popular move appeared to be taking the Eurostar to Paris for much better odds of taking off from there. Should we take bets on whether they get a reasonable set of Heathrow flights back to normal before Christmas? (I’m guessing not, if they could not do anything at all today.) Do we find BA to be the most beleaguered airline of 2010? (Most definitely: between the cabin crew strikes, the volcano and this…) Do we have serious qualms about a country in which the flagship airport housing the flagship national carrier in a flagship brand-new terminal has such problems with a few inches of snow and temperatures barely below freezing? (Yes, duh.) Do we wonder what’s really going on here? (Super-duh.) Stay tuned for updates in the soap opera saga that is winter in Britain, where apparently after each snowfall clears up, amnesia sets in such that no lessons are learned for the next time the white stuff starts coming out of the sky.

Update from Bean-town

I made it to Boston, managed to spend the first 24 hours sitting in my hotel room working on the things that needed to be done for the work-thing I’m attending, made it through one of those epic 14 hour days yesterday doing all the work things that required the preparation, and now I’m sitting in my hotel room trying to figure out what to do next. (Blog, obviously!) I have the rest of the week “free” in that my contributions to the conference are done and my time is my own to schedule, instead of it being scheduled for me by circumstances. So I shall be taking advantage of this opportunity to learn some new things and meet with some people and generally try and remember where I was and what I was doing before I got so busy with the prep work for this trip.

Being back in America, it’s becoming increasingly clear how culturally confused I am. I keep forgetting which way the cars should be coming from when I am standing at a crosswalk. I have been getting teased by old friends about my use of words like “Mum” and expressions that to my ear don’t sound particularly strange. People keep joking about whether I’ll acquire an accent. People also seem to have assumed that I’ve settled in for the long haul and have no intentions of moving back. On that one I stay silent, since really I still have no idea what I’ll do in the long term and I’ve placed that entire question into the “too hard basket” in order to focus on other things.

I have not attended this meeting for the last few years, so several people have not recognized me straight away–the thing where my hair has been getting more curly as I’ve gotten older and now is quite long is extremely confusing to people used to my having short and straight hair. I swear this is one of the professional challenges associated with being a girl: the average male does not change as much in appearance from year to year as the average female. Of course, I also worry that the last four and a bit years of expat life have aged me rather dramatically and that no one wants to say this to my face!

Tomorrow one of my very best friends will be flying in from Colorado to join me in Boston… we have justified this little jaunt with some rather flimsy work-related excuses but mostly we are peers who have the same sort of difficult job and we need time to commiserate and strategize. Preferably over wine. Then on the weekend it’s back to England, back to life, back to reality, back to work, and back to what sounds to be a frozen tundra with snow. Should be interesting.

Running up the Eastern Seaboard

Let’s see, when last I wrote here I was blissfully in North Carolina, along the Outer Banks, having a beach holiday. And then along came Hurricane Earl. The first week of the holiday, Hurricane Danielle had been a threat. But that threat had diminished and aside from some rough surf leading to a few “no swimming” red flag days along the beaches, there was really nothing interesting there. But Earl decided to head straight for the Outer Banks and with a vengeance. I stayed at the same beach house this year as I had the last two years, but this year brought new owners since last summer, and with them, many improvements to what was already a great house. Internet access proved to be the most important one (a gas grill was also appreciated, as was a huge flat screen TV). I started obsessing over weather.com’s Hurricane Central site, checking it every few hours, as it became clear that this was NOT GOOD. On Wednesday morning of beach week 2, with the news looking bad, I decided to evacuate on Thursday morning. This was a mere 48 hours before I would have had to leave as per my planned end of two weeks beach holiday (check-out by 10 am Saturday morning), so not too disappointing really. My view was that by the time the hurricane was due to pass (Friday mid-day) I would have been done beach-ing anyways, and would have been packing up with no more fun to be had. So I spent Wednesday alternating between beach things and packing/cleaning things, and readied myself for the trip northwards and inland into Virginia leaving early Thursday morning.

This was the beach Wednesday, at which point you could see how the phrase “the calm before the storm” originated: there was absolutely NO sign of a hurricane barreling straight at us in this photo!

The self-imposed evacuation all went smoothly and by mid-day Thursday I was having lunch and a glass of wine safely away from OBX, at which point I checked weather.com for an update and found that they had called a mandatory evacuation that morning, three hours after my departure. I felt vindicated. My ruthless plan had resulted in my not being stuck in epic traffic once the evacuation was called, starting from three hours after I left the islands.

I now had an extra forty-eight hours before my planned departure for Minnesota and my near-annual visit to the State Fair. I did now have time for some very useful and much needed errands, including such painful things like dealing with an American Bank Account that was every bit as frustrating as the experiences I had with my British Bankers on first moving to the UK. Side-note-story: Basically, when I moved abroad I left small balances (~$100) in both checking and savings accounts in the US at two different banks (from the two parts of the country that I lived before moving abroad, since there were not banks in common in the two places at the time), and apparently one of them (Bank of America) was deducting regular fees for “account maintenance” even though the account was dormant (my other bank, Wells Fargo, has not done this) and kept doing so until the count was just over $30 in deficit, at which point they contacted me to threaten collection. I only received notice of this earlier this year, when my dad brought a pile of American mail over when he visited me, and frankly I don’t get much in the way of useful American mail at the folks’ house any more. So I had to clear the accounts and sort out the deficit balance, which it turns out was more than covered by the savings partition OF THE SAME ACCOUNT so I ended up with cash in hand but no longer have an existing account in case I ever move back to the US (which was why I left the account in the first place, thinking I might be back some day and it was silly to close them and then disappear). SIGH. Other expats be warned, be careful what the fine print on your bank accounts sayeth and do not expect the bank to do anything sensible!!! /endrant

Where was I? Oh yes, moving up the Eastern Seaboard with extra time on my hands. With the free Saturday (during which I should have been just leaving the beach, and after spending Friday with the Very Fun Bankers et al.) I got to go up to Baltimore to visit my newly-repatriated sister who is just settling in to her new job there. She has a fabulous new place not far off the waterfront in a funky-cool part of town with lots of little indy shops and restaurants and jazz bars and the like. I spent a great day with her walking around and taking in the sites, without having remembered to bring my camera up for the day so I shall have to return for photos at another time. But certainly a day of sister time in Baltimore was worth the pain of the hurricane, right?

Sunday I awoke and flew out to Minneapolis, Minnesota for the “family time” leg of my trip. Having dinner with my folks Sunday night was sort of odd, after having had lunch with my sister the previous day in Baltimore. But hey, it’s all part of the wonderful modern world. But I started to fade during dinner, perhaps as a result of having just done the North Carolina-Virginia-Maryland-Virginia-Minnesota dance over the course of only four days. I had a good night’s sleep and awoke early this morning full of excitement over today’s trip to the Minnesota State Fair, but that is truly a subject for another post.

Beach holiday

I’m on my annual beach holiday, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Thus my silence, I’m enjoying the one time a year that I can turn off a bit. And realizing how European I’ve become in loving my two week beach holiday!!!

I’m walking on the beach a great deal and cooking many interesting things. Like things that require Velveeta. And jalapeños. God bless America!