LONDON – Snow brought chaos to Britain's transport network on Saturday on the last weekend before Christmas, normally one of the busiest days of the year for travel and shopping.
Most of western Britain, Northern Ireland and northern Scotland suffered blizzards, while heavy snow fell on London and the south, with up to 20 cm (7.9 inches) expected in places.
Up to 25 cm were reported in northwest England, and temperatures were forecast to drop to minus 14 degrees Celsius (6.8 Fahrenheit) in western Scotland.
Many airports, trains and roads were brought to a standstill in what Transport Secretary Philip Hammond described as "extraordinary" conditions.
Britain traditionally experiences mild winters, but last year's was the coldest for 30 years and the latest big dump of snow is the second to blanket the country and cause widespread disruption in the space of just three weeks.
Hammond said he had asked the government's chief scientific adviser to assess whether Britain was experiencing a "step change" in weather patterns due to climate change and needed to spend more money on winter preparations.
Britain's second-busiest airport, London Gatwick, closed its runway for about five hours on Saturday to allow about 10 cm of snow to be cleared, with hundreds of flights canceled or delayed. Earlier this month, heavy snow forced its closure for nearly three days.
Both runways at London Heathrow were also closed but were expected to re-open later on Saturday, while other British airports were also disrupted. Some passengers were reported to have been stuck on the runway for a number of hours.
"This has been quite freak weather conditions. So the problem we have got is even with all the snow ploughs we have, as they are clearing the snow, it is falling behind them and that obviously turns to ice, which is then a massive safety hazard for planes," Andrew Teacher, spokesman for Heathrow Airport operator BAA, told BBC television.
BECOMING A PATTERN
Hammond said one of the "great myths that has to be punctured" was the perception that Britain ground to a halt after a flurry of snow while the rest of Europe managed to cope.
"Yesterday, our airports in London's area were working fine but there was major disruption because of flights being delayed because they couldn't get away from airports elsewhere in Europe," he told BBC television.
Germany's biggest airline Lufthansa on Saturday announced the cancellation of domestic and European flights to and from Frankfurt due to "an expected worsening of weather conditions." It said long-haul flights were not affected.
Hammond said the government needed to keep under review the balance between what could be afforded on snow-clearing equipment and the level of disruption.
"If it becomes clear that this is now becoming a pattern that we can expect to see repeated in the future, then we will have to revisit some of those investment decisions," he added.
Many Premier League soccer fixtures were called off, including Sunday's top of the table clash between Chelsea and Manchester United.
This December is likely to be Britain's coldest since 1910 if temperatures in the second half of the month are as low as they have been in the first, while media reports said Northern Ireland was suffering its worst weather in 25 years.