What’s going on? This is Ireland, not Iceland or Greenland. The fact is the Irish countryside, normally wet and green in winter because of the flow of temperate ocean air from the Atlantic, has been pretty much one big snowfield since the end of November.
The Irish are not accustomed to snow, never mind snowfields, nor temperatures so low that lakes and reservoirs have frozen. But Ireland is currently experiencing a “perfect storm”: a complex and slow-moving low-pressure system across Europe that, aside from a break in mid-December, has been drawing Arctic air directly down across the country.
The novelty of skidding and sliding over compacted snow on hilly, twisting by-roads has forced other unfamiliar words into the Irish national lexicon, such as “snow socks,” “snow chains” and "winter tires.” Few people in Ireland had heard of snow socks before this month.
“They were new to us — until this year,” said Stuart Burke of Micksgarage.ie in Dublin, which has begun marketing the super-strong textile covers that are slipped over wheels to provide grip. “Now everybody’s panicking and we’ve sold thousands of snow socks in the last month and we are out of stock at present.”
It is the same with all-weather, or winter, tires, which suppliers like Pirelli never saw the need to stock for Irish distribution. The family-owned firm Auto Fast Fit in Letterkenny, County Donegal, imported several hundred winter tires this year after a “mad rush” last January, during the first snowy Irish winter in the mountainous county for 18 years.
“The gamble paid off,” said Auto Fast Fit Director Stephen Harris. “We anticipated the demand and ordered the largest stock levels in the U.K. and Ireland in August. Wholesalers thought we were mad but after last year’s winter I knew that people would want to be better prepared. However I completely underestimated the level of demand. Within 36 hours of the first snow, we sold out.”
Forty-year-old Harris, who said his mother has not seen a winter like this year’s since she was 15, thinks that Ireland is undergoing a revolution in thinking about winter driving. Hardly anyone bothered changing tires for winter before now because snow was a rare event, but lately there has been a growing awareness of the need to remain mobile, especially to keep businesses going and schools open, when the roads are as slippery as skating rinks.
(I am no exception: living in a steep cul de sac high in the hills above Dublin I had to leave my Toyota Avalon in the village of Stepaside one-and-a-half miles below for several days in the worst of the snow in early December. Having managed to acquire winter tires, I no longer look with such dread at approaching snow clouds.)
Snow chains have been in demand too, but using them is technically illegal in Ireland as snow cover tends to be irregular and chains tear up bare road surfaces.
This December is likely to be the coldest on record in the Emerald Isle, according to Met Eireann forecaster Gerald Fleming. Castlederg, County Tyrone, experienced the coldest-ever December temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 18 Centigrade) early Monday. The Arctic conditions have shaken up preconceptions about weather trends in the islands of the European continent. Ten years ago David Viner, senior research scientist at the climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, predicted that with warmer winters, “children just aren’t going to know what snow is.”
He was not alone. A couple of years ago an Irish publisher expressed some enthusiasm for a book on the “Big Snow” of 1947 in Ireland, on the grounds that it would interest a generation that had grown up on the island without experiencing a real snow event. Fortunately nothing came of the idea. Perhaps in another half century, however, there will be an occasion to write a book of the “Big Snow” of 2010.