Bitter cold in Europe kills 8, halts air traffic

Heavy snow and subzero temperatures swept across Europe, killing at least eight homeless people in Poland, closing major airports in Britain and Switzerland and causing hundreds of highway accidents.

A location in the Scottish highlands recorded Britain’s lowest-ever temperature reading, a chilling minus 27 degrees.

Gatwick, London’s second largest airport, and Geneva, a major hub for low-cost carrier Easyjet, were forced to shut down as staff struggled to clear runways of snow.

Edinburgh airport in Scotland, Leeds airport in northern England, and Chambery and Grenoble in southeastern France also were closed.

Eurocontrol, the central air control agency, reported severe flight delays in Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich, Vienna, Prague and Paris Orly.

In Poland, police said eight men died on Tuesday night after a bitter cold front roared in, with temperatures falling to around minus 20 degrees. Police spokesman Mariusz Sokolowski said the men, from different parts of the country, had been drinking. The eastern Polish city of Bialystok hit minus 26 Celsius on Tuesday night.

Winter weather caused some 2000 accidents on German roads, officials said.

In northern Austria, police said a 69-year-old retiree froze to death overnight when he slipped on a snow-covered bridge on his way home from a funeral and lost consciousness.

Officials at Gatwick, south of London, said the airport would remain closed until early today, stranding about 600 flights that were expected to leave yesterday.

Extra staff were working “around the clock” to clear the runways, and passengers were advised to check with their airline or Gatwick’s website for updates.

Gatwick was under five to six inches of snow yesterday morning and has seen continuous snowfall throughout the day, said spokeswoman Andrea Hopkins, adding that she was unable to provide a current estimate.

Geneva’s airport was closed, a spokesman said. The city has seen 10 inches (25cm) of fresh snow in the past 24 hours and many travellers unable to find a room spent the night in civil protection shelters.

Zurich, Switzerland’s biggest airport, reported delays and cancellations on the day many VIPs, including former President Bill Clinton and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, were travelling to FIFA’s headquarters to push their countries’ bids to host the 2018 and 2022 football World Cups.

Airport spokeswoman Sonja Zoechling said the presence of so many private jets and charter planes in Zurich meant the airport had to turn down requests for diverted landings yesterday.

Swiss weather agency Meteosuisse forecast more snow throughout the day as a low-pressure front centred over western Europe moves slowly eastward.

“We’ve got unusually cold air over large parts of the eastern Atlantic, and where that meets warm air coming for example from the Mediterranean you have a lot of snow,” said meteorologist Heinz Maurer.

He predicted that snowfall would ease in central Europe by today, but nights will remain extremely cold.

La Brevine, in northwestern Switzerland, recorded temperatures of -31 degrees Celsius (-24 Fahrenheit) overnight, Maurer said.

Even the undersea Channel Tunnel was hit with travel delays due to the snow. Six Eurostar trains to and from London were cancelled and delays on other services were expected.

In Ireland, flights from Dublin airport were temporarily suspended early yesterday while thick snow and ice was cleared from a main runway.

With many schools closed and minor roads impassable due to snow, authorities urged drivers to stay home unless absolutely necessary. Grocery chain Tesco said the cold snap had seen a rise in sales of whiskey – often served warm in winter – and hot chocolate.

Nine regions in northwest and southeast France were put on a weather alert, warning of snow and ice until this morning.

SNCF, France’s national railway, said traffic on the main southeast routes had been affected by heavy snow, but 80 per cent of its high-speed trains were still running.

In Poland, police were carrying out patrols to find homeless people and get them into shelters. The bad weather was also blamed for a collision between a tram and a car that killed one person in Szczecin.

Further south, some 300 people were evacuated from their homes in the northern part of Montenegro because of heavy rains. Authorities in the town of Berane said dozens of homes and roads were flooded and more evacuations were likely.

Neighbouring Albania declared a state of emergency due to widespread flooding in Shkodra district, 120km northwest of the capital, Tirana, along the Drini River delta.

Hydroelectric power generated from the river covers the bulk of Albania’s energy needs.

Prime Minister Sali Berisha says the flooding has resulted in an increase of energy output.

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