Friday, January 28, 2011

Snow -- The Dark Side

A couple of weeks ago, Helsinki was hit by probably the worst possible weather phenomenon you can experience this time of the year -- it turned warm.  Above freezing, in fact.  We knew it was coming.  It had been predicted days in advance.  But that still doesn’t mean we were mentally prepared for it.  So I was a little surprised, and hugely disappointed, when I woke one morning to the light tapping of rain on our bedroom skylight. 

A typical Helsinki mid-winter street scene.
Now, for many folks in the US, especially in the south where I’m from, the idea of a downside to above-freezing temperatures will sound, well, nutty.  Especially after the southern US recently got walloped with a blast of proper winter weather that caused all kinds of havoc in Georgia and other subtropical states.  Atlanta-based Delta Airlines was apparently forced by the snow and ice to cancel some 3500 flights over a two-day period.  And schools were closed for a full week, as highway departments were unable to keep roads passable.  At least three other southern states besides Georgia declared states of emergency.  A sudden winter storm in Dixie, though small by Helsinki standards, shows how little climate change it actually takes to upend modern life. 

But trust me, a sudden thaw in Finland, though not as disruptive as a little snow in Georgia, is no fun either.  As long as the mercury stays below freezing here in Helsinki, all that snow burying the yard, piled beside the road, and covering the rooftops remains more or less pristine – in fact, lovely, white, and deep.  And dry.  Nice and dry.  That all changes once warm air blows into town.  Sidewalks turn into wet stretches of slush, and deep puddles of dirty, brown meltwater appear in the streets.  It’s sloppy wet conditions like this that make it oh so understandable that Nokia, Finland’s best-known technological powerhouse, first got its start making knee-high rubber boots. 

Our own private hanging glacier.
Of course, all that slush under your feet is just an inconvenience.  What is seriously something to worry about is the danger from above.  As long as temps remain below freezing, the snowpack on the roofs will, in most cases, stay put, like hanging glaciers clinging to a mountainside. 

Many Finnish houses are fitted with “snow rails”, small guardrails along the bottom edge of the roof, to keep those micro-glaciers from sliding off.  But, even snow rails can’t hold back 20 inches of accumulated snow when warmer weather greases the skids, as it were, and gravity does what gravity does best. 

During these annoying warm spells, an entire roof-full of snow can plummet, and I mean plummet – without warning -- to the ground with a fearsome thump.  After one such “avalanche” last week, we checked that both our cats were accounted for, since the falling mass of snow completely obliterated a path (more like a snowy trench) that the cats often use when they’re outside. 

While such a sudden dumping of snow would certainly entomb a cat, it wouldn’t do a human any good either.  It’s common to see sections of sidewalks below the typical Helsinki eight-story apartment building cordoned off by caution tape if there’s a danger of snow falling, especially when the roof is being cleared.  It’s deadly serious business.  An 81-year-old Helsinki man who strayed into such a taped-off area was recently killed by falling snow and ice. 

And it can be dangerous as well for the guys who clamber around on the roofs to clear the snow.  At least three snow cleaners (should they be “snow sweeps”?) have fallen from high rooftops this year, saved only by their tethers.  Still, the job is well-paid and pretty good seasonal work for folks who are not afraid of heights, and are fit.  

A local snow dump.
It is definitely physical work, as my wife and I found out last weekend when we agreed to help clear snow from the three-acre roof of a warehouse near Helsinki, as part of a money-making scheme for our daughter’s soccer club.  Working in shifts over an eight-hour period, about a dozen of us soccer parents pushed large scoop-fulls of snow to the edge of the roof and dumped them to the parking lot three stories below.  At the end of the day, though we were able to clear only part of the roof, we had left several piles of snow in the parking lot, each large enough to cover a VW minibus. 

Fortunately for us, removing the snow once it was on the ground was someone else’s problem.  And that is the ultimate problem with snow when you can’t simply wait for it to melt – where the hell do you put it all?  By mid-winter, every parking lot and sidewalk in Helsinki is crowded with piled up snow that eventually needs to be dealt with.  (It’s great fun, however, for neighborhood kids who love climbing around on these temporary, slippery mountains.) 

Of course, unlike many cities in the US – and not only the south, mind you, but also New York a couple of weeks ago and Washington this week – Helsinki is pretty well geared up for all this.  To keep the city functioning, an army of front loaders and dump trucks work all winter long, hauling the snow to its final resting place.  Scattered around Helsinki are a dozen or so “snow dumps”, where truckload after truckload of snow (200,000 loads last winter) is deposited in monster piles, some reaching at least 30 feet in height.  (One or two are located offshore on the sea ice so that they'll melt directly into the Baltic.)  In these dumps, the remains of winter slowly melt away before completely disappearing sometime in summer.  If you've come to decide -- as some of my friends have -- that you've had about enough of snow for this winter, thank you very much, it might just give you a chill to think that somewhere nearby the white stuff can linger until June.  

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