LONDON: Heavy snowfall and deadly blizzards lashed Europe Thursday, forcing airports to cancel or delay flights around the continent, as a deep freeze gripped countries from the far north to Mediterranean beaches in the south.
The snowstorms, unusual for much of Europe at this time of year, left roads blocked, thousands of drivers stranded and schools shut, with weather agencies predicting the biting cold would continue in parts of the region at least until Thursday evening.
The death toll Europe-wide climbed to more than 55, as another three people perished in Poland, taking the number of victims there to 21, most of them rough sleepers.
In Slovakia, exposure to the cold has claimed the lives of seven people since Sunday, the Medical Rescue Service told AFP.
There have also been six deaths in the Czech Republic in recent days, five in Lithuania, four in France, three in Spain, two each in Italy, Serbia, Romania and Slovenia, and one each in Britain and the Netherlands.
One of the Spanish victims was a 39-year-old homeless man who had been sleeping in an abandoned truck.
“Those most at risk of cold-related illness include elderly people, children, and people who have chronic diseases or physical or mental limitations,” the World Health Organization said in a statement, adding that the poor, the homeless and migrants were often hardest hit.
The Siberian cold front — dubbed the “Beast from the East” in Britain, “Siberian bear” by the Dutch and the “snow cannon” by Swedes — on Thursday forced Geneva airport to close for several hours in the morning, with temperatures plunging in Switzerland to nearly minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 38 Fahrenheit) at higher altitudes.
Scotland’s Glasgow airport closed its runway, while Edinburgh airport said several airlines decided not to fly because “they do not have the critical mass of staff needed to run operations securely”.
Snow forced the cancellation of all flights at Dublin airport, with services not expected to resume until Saturday at the earliest, and strong winds led KLM airlines to cancel or delay dozens of flights into and out of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.
Eurostar also pulled four of its international services on Thursday, connecting London, Paris and Brussels, with further cancellations announced for Friday.
Though some people enjoyed an outing in the cold, those who donned their ice skates risked discovering the waters were not frozen enough.
A 74-year-old man who fell through the ice on a pond near Bruges remained in hospital in critical condition Thursday, a Belgian TV channel reported.
‘Cemetery of trucks and cars’
The mercury also dropped below freezing across southern Europe.
Snowfall in northern Italy forced the cancellation of 50 percent of regional trains, while in the city of Naples, schools were shut.
In normally balmy southern France, beaches in Nice were blanketed in a thick layer of snow.
Near the city of Montpellier, around 2,000 drivers were stranded on a motorway, causing anger from those sitting behind the wheel for hours on end.
“The motorway looks like a cemetery of trucks and cars,” tweeted Anthony Jammot, describing an “apocalyptic” 24 hours in his car with two young children and no information or help from local authorities.
In Paris, which awoke Thursday under a blanket of snow, authorities continued operating emergency shelters for the city’s roughly 3,000 homeless.
Demanding more efforts to keep people off the streets, around 30 local officials spent the night near the city’s Gare d’Austerlitz train station as temperatures dipped below zero.
“We can’t keep considering the homeless just another part of the scenery,” Greens lawmaker Ali Id Elouali said.
In Germany, the national homeless association urged shelters to open during the day and not just at night.
“You can die of cold during the day too,” its chief Werena Rosenke warned.
Authorities urged people to look out for elderly relatives and neighbours after a French woman in her nineties was found frozen to death outside her retirement home.
No spring amulets
Europe’s cold snap comes as the Arctic experiences record-high temperatures, prompting scientists to ask if global warming may be playing a role in turning things upside down.
The unusually cold weather has also impacted local customs, as the first spring month began.
In Romania, people were marking the day without the amulets they traditionally exchange.
Sales of the “martisor” good luck charms plummeted, along with the temperature.