Belfast Telegraph

Northern exposure

We have a curious tendency to over-react to the first flakes of snow. We forget we are as close to the Arctic as we are to Spain, writes Malachi O'Doherty

We live in a country that gets heavy snow every few years and very heavy snow just about once a decade. The worst I have known in my own lifetime was the horrendous winter of 1962-63. The snow lay for months.

Back then, comparisons were made in the media with the previous big winter in 1947.

I was 11 years old in 1962. I went to school in short trousers and no one that I knew had central heating. We had a coal fire in the living room and a paraffin heater placed behind us.

We obsessed about draughts and chilblains and dreaded having to go upstairs for that was only a little less challenging than going outside for a shovel of coal.

And crawling into bed was like getting into cold water, for the chill in the cotton sheets seemed to slither over your skin until your own body heat warmed them.

Rough? No, that was normal.

What was also normal was a sense of novelty about snow. We always react to it with surprise and always have done. It seems to be just rare enough for us never to get used to it.

So we forget quickly how horrible life was the last time the pavements were covered in frozen slush.

Maybe we whoop with with joy at the sight of snow because it is so bright.

It may be a natural antidote to Seasonal Affective Disorder, the other cure for which is to sit beside a glowing light for several hours a day.

Suddenly, the whole landscape is beautiful. Children are excited and run out to play in it.

At 11pm last Friday night, teenagers at Forestside were out snowballing traffic, clearly unable or disinclined to empathise with drivers who had enough to fret about without them.

And because snow comes infrequently, we never learn how to dress for it.

Young people who take their fashions from Australian soaps want to dress as if the sun is shining.

You can often see schoolchildren in the rain carrying their blazers and wearing their shirts with the tails hanging out.

They don't want to be cool; they want to be cold.

That's one good reason alone for closing the schools; children can't be trusted to put comfort over image and don't know that looking to the rest of of the world as if you haven't the sense to dress sensibly is a bad image to cultivate.

Men here don't want to wear hats.

You will see them in a normal winter walking bare-headed in the rain, even nonchalantly not pulling their hoods up. The winter of 2010 has brought out the furs and woolly hats. Being cold isn't cool after all, not if your ears are numb.

And another confusing element in the mix is the debate about climate change. Global warming has been presented to us over and over again as something that will bring change in our local circumstances.

So if we haven't had much snow for a decade, we read that as indicating that we probably won't ever have snow again.

In fact, the changing global pattern allows for the prospect of us having another 1963 or 1947.

But the case that we should be alert to global warming has repeatedly asked us to see local and regional extremes as evidence of damage to the environment caused by carbon.

The snow on our streets now no more proves the case against global warming than recent hot summers made the case for it, but tell that to those who expected to see climate change out their windows.

The weather we are having now resembles the horrific winters of 1963 and 1947. Both of those winters were distinguished by high pressure sitting over us and biting winds from the east.

But in both years conditions were exacerbated by blizzards and then flooding following the thaw which, both times, came in the first week of March.

Another difference is that the chill started earlier this year; if it follows the pattern through to March, like the other big freezes, then it really will be worse than anything we have seen since Shakespeare wrote of milk that "comes frozen home in pail".

But should we be surprised? Deep freeze winters belong within the normal repertoire of the climatic zone we are in.

We are as close to the Arctic Circle as we are to Spain; we just tend to forget that because we never go there. It comes to us, though.

And we feel cheated if we get a summer without an occasional breeze wafting from the Azores, but imagine we have winters insulated against the north.

Our entire landscape is shaped by ice that a mere 100 centuries ago was a mile-and-a-half over our heads.

There appears to be no immediate prospect of another ice age, but perhaps this big freeze is a timely reminder that we are a northern people, on the same latitude as Newfoundland and Moscow.

We are perpetually vulnerable to Arctic blasts, and strangely inclined to forget that.

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