Europe’s Deep Freeze

A record cold snap seizes the continent, leaving residents in winter’s icy grip

Feb 08, 2012 | By Vickie An

Europeans are digging out from heavy snow after a week of extreme cold gripped large parts of the continent. The cold snap is the harshest to hit Europe in decades. Power outages and traffic problems created chaos throughout the region as roads were blocked and airports were shut down. Dangerous conditions led some countries to close schools for a week.

As of Wednesday, at least 400 people across Europe had died as a result of the bitter temperatures. Thousands have been hospitalized for frostbite and hypothermia. Frostbite occurs when tissues in the body literally freeze. Hypothermia happens when the body loses heat and falls to an abnormally low temperature. Both are serious medical conditions.

Heavy snowfall buries cars parked in downtown Cetinje, Montenegro.
Heavy snowfall buries cars parked in downtown Cetinje, Montenegro.

The Big Chill

Several countries have declared a state of emergency. In Ukraine, which has been hit the hardest, temperatures dipped to as low as -33°F.  Temperatures in Rome, Italy, fell below the freezing mark as rare snowfall blanketed the capital city over the weekend. The last time the Mediterranean country saw snow like this was in 1986.

In Eastern Europe, avalanches trapped thousands of people in remote mountain villages. Authorities in Bosnia were using helicopters to deliver food and evacuate the sick. Snowed-in roads are complicating relief efforts. “There are several small hamlets with children and elderly people—and we’re not able to help them,” said Radovan Palavstra, mayor of the city of East Mostar, in Bosnia. Emergency officials say they must clear 12 miles of road before they can get to the area.

Ice Capades

While the situation remains serious in many parts of Europe, at least one country is hoping the wintry weather will last a little longer. In the Netherlands, officials are preparing for the country’s legendary “11 Cities Tour.” The 125-mile ice-skating marathon is held along a network of frozen canals that connects 11 towns and cities in the Netherlands’ Friesland province.

Supplies had to be airlifted into remote villages, like this one in Bosnia, where avalanches had blocked off the roads.
Supplies were airlifted into villages, like this one in Bosnia, where avalanches had blocked off roads.

If the weather holds up, it would be the first time in 15 years that the race could be staged. The ice along the entire route must be six inches thick in order for the event to happen. Up to 2 million spectators are expected to line up along the frozen waterways to cheer on the race’s 16,000 competitors.

On Wednesday, Dutch soldiers joined in on the preparations. They shoveled snow along an alternate route in case ice on part of the traditional track is too weak. This would only be the 16th time the event has taken place since the first race in 1909. Dutch General Hans van der Louw said his troops were happy to lend a hand. "We want to do our bit for this national party," he said.