Europe’s Deadly Cold Spell: A Slight Thaw, But Winter Misery Continues

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Guido Montani / EPA

Snow falls on the Colosseum in Rome, Italy on Feb. 11, 2012.

The western edge of Europe looked set on Monday to get some relief from the extreme cold spell that has frozen the continent and left over 500 people dead over the past two weeks. But as temperatures began to rise on the north Atlantic coast, it was still unclear whether the slow advance of that warmer system would bring respite soon to Poland, Serbia, Romania, the Ukraine and other central and eastern European nations that have been most brutally battered by a Siberian cold front that reached from Russia all the way to the U.K. It’s the worst winter onslaught the continent has seen since the mid-1980s.

At least 131 people have perished in the Ukraine. Officials in Poland have announced the deaths of 20 people since Saturday alone, pushing the total number of casualties there to over 100. Scores of deaths have been reported in nations across Europe during the unrelenting snap–usually from exposure to the glacial cold, or from asphyxiation related to faulty heating systems. Over the weekend nine people in Kosovo perished in an avalanche caused by the extreme weather, though a five year-old girl was pulled from the rubble that claimed the rest of her family.

(PHOTOS: Deadly cold ravages stretches of Europe.)

News of rising temperatures Monday from the Atlantic north-west was cause for some hope the worst is over—as well as skepticism among cold-battered Europeans who’ve witnessed awe-inspiring sights of winter’s power in the past weeks. That in part reflects an even greater public doubt about the precision of weather reports than usual. Meteorologists initially responded to the sudden plunge of temperatures in what had been a remarkable warm winter in Europe by predicting the chill would only last for a week at most. But as that frigid grasp tightened across the continent and in the U.K. into last week—and casualties linked to it began mounting—weather experts warned the spell could continue to the end of February. For that reason, the sudden announcement of a warming trend has some half-frozen Europeans feeling once frost-bitten and twice shy—and waiting to see the mercury rise before they will believe it.

Indeed, it’s unclear whether the more temperate front will advance eastward, and with equally quick mercy as it arrived on Europe’s western shores. While that system is expected to allow alerts to be lifted in much of Belgium, France, and parts of Germany and the Netherlands as early as Monday night, it’s uncertain if that system will beat back the brutal cold from worst-hit central and eastern Europe soon. That means the Danube, the Black Sea and other iced-over waterways vital to maritime transport will remain shut for travel for the foreseeable future—leaving stranded perishable goods and travelers stuck in limbo.

Meanwhile, experts also note that even areas seeing improvement won’t be able to forget about weather-related hazards immediately. The system bringing warmer temperatures in from the northwest, for example, is expected to dump even thicker blankets of snow on countries already struggling to dig out from the Siberian freeze. That’s bad news for Italy, which has seen serious transport disruptions and closures of historical sites due to the unusual weather. The anticipated snowfall for northern, central, and eastern France is also expected to cause the infrastructure traumas French roads, railways, and airports habitually suffer during flurries. Problems could get exacerbated even as the cold relents. French authorities are already reporting a rising spate of calls to emergency services by homeowners whose once-frozen water mains have now burst.

Similar complications may also await points farther south if deadly cold cedes to merely foul weather there, too. As two weeks of disruption in Spain and Italy attest, any appearance of serious winter in places unused to it can cause near chaos. In Algeria it even caused death: at least 44 people have died in the North African nation over the past two weeks as temperatures dropped there—creating dangerous driving conditions for which locals were unprepared.

Back up in France, meanwhile, news headlines Monday were focusing less on the 14 people who perished there from the recent cold, and more on the blow to national pride the freeze caused. Foreign media has continued mocking the decision Saturday night in Paris to call off the Six Nations rugby match between France and Ireland due to the cold—and just minutes before the scheduled kick off. The decision sent both national sides and a nearly capacity stadium of around 80,000 seriously hacked-off fans home with nothing to show for their icy slog to the match. Though the sub-zeros temperatures had been forecast, it seems neither match organizers nor the referee trusted much in the weather reports, either—until game time came around and temperatures fell to under -5C.