#374 The Relativity of Snow

One might need a physics degree to actually understand the discrete mathematical concepts and equations behind Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and its application to cosmology and astrophysics,  but most people know and understand the layman’s version:

Put your hands on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it feels like a minute. That’s relativity.

Albert Einstein is believed to have said something to this effect to his secretary to enable her  to answer questions he kept receiving asking for explanations of his theorem. The philosopical concept of relativisim of course dates back much further than Einstein, and doesn’t have a similarly iconic quip to encapsulate the idea, but to be honest I think Einstein’s words cover all manners of relative sins, shall we say. The idea is the same: views are relative to differences in perception and consideration.

What does that have to do with snow? Well, everything if you’re an expat from a snowier country that’s just lived through Storm Emma in Ireland. This soggy island is known for being relataively temperate. Our summers aren’t too hot and our winters aren’t too cold. Mostly, we just get a lot of wet. This Irish graphic designer, Mella OBrolchain, has a variation on a classic theme of tourist postcards about Irish seasons:


What Ireland hasn’t gotten much of in the last thirteen years that I’ve been here is snow. Sure, some winters Dublin might get ten minutes of flurries which melt before even hitting the concrete, and yes, those same flurries actually make for pretty wintry conditions in remote parts of the island like Sally Gap in Wicklow, Kerry, Donegal, or Connemara. But overall snow is just not a major factor of our winters and temperatures below freezing are generally not the norm.

This means that when the odd snow storm does come along to blanket the island, the place is woefully unprepared to deal with it. There are not many snow plows. People aren’t in the habit of swapping out summer and winter tyres or keeping chains in the back of the car like they used to. No one keeps snow shovels in the shed or ice scrapers in the car. People certainly aren’t prepared to shovel the sidewalks outside their own house and the city doesn’t have the equipment to do it. Rock salt and grit are kept municipally in small quantities. The last severe winter we had was in 2009/2010 when Ireland experienced the coldest weather in about 50 years. There was persistent snow and freezing temperatures. The national stock of rock salt and its delivery schedule from France made daily front page news ahead of any political scandal. Hospitals were overwhelmed by people with fractures from falling on the ice. The Army made home visits to isolated residences and communities. Water pipes froze and burst causing water shortages for the entire winter season, which in turn shut down restaurants which couldn’t operate without sufficient water pressure. Public transport schedules were erratic.

Has anything changed in eight years? Not really. However the problem with Storm Emma wasn’t just freezing temperatures. This wasn’t the kind of Emma that comes over for tea and bats her eyelashes at Mr. Knightley. This was the clumsy kind of Emma that breaks all your fine china and spills milk on the carpets while Mr. Knightley gets drunk off his ass in your living room and insults your entire lineague.

See, Storm Emma was a winter snow storm from the west that coincided with “The Beast from the East,” a polar vortex bringing freezing acrtic temperatures down from Siberia.  The result was anticipated to be the worst snow in over thirty years. It started snowing on Tuesday evening and didn’t stop until Saturday. A red weather alert was in place for some or all of Ireland from last Wednesday to Saturday night. Schools were closed for three days. Those businesses which didn’t shut down on Wednesday were shutting down by Thursday afternoon. Transport came to a stand still as snow began to accumulate everywhere combined with freezing temperatures and severe winds.

So how bad was Emma really? Well, see… it depends on where you’re from. It may have been a while, but I’ve lived through my share of New England nor’easters. I’ve lived through winters where the ground wasn’t visible under the snow for months at a time. Does New England come grinding to a halt every time? Not really. New England, and Russia, and many other places that regularly deal with heavy snow, are prepared for these things. As soon as the first snow starts falling, snow plows crawl out onto the roads. Large municipal ones begin clearing the highways and removable ones owned by individuals who hitch them to the front of their pick up trucks for extra money begin clearing the backroads. Everyone pulls out their snow shovels. Teenagers make pocket money clearing out neighbours’ driveways. People wake up extra early to warm up their cars and defrost the windows. There are plentiful stocks of antifreeze and grit. Pipes are insulated properly during construction and underground ones are buried deep to reduce the risk of freezing (something that wasn’t done during the Celtic Tiger construction boom).

Once blizzard conditions pass, people get on with their daily lives.

Storm Emma? Nothing like any nor’easter I’ve previously lived through. The first thing the country seemed to run out of, by Thursday afternoon, was bread. The internet was full of bread memes.

The Army had to deliver essential supplies to stranded families. They also had to give rides to doctors and nurses stranded by the lack of public transport. In fact, the Army even had to assist the local police just to get through the roads. In one suburb, while a gang of youths stole a digger and used it to demolish a Lidl store and then drag the safe outside to try and crack it, while another gang of youths cheerfully pulled out garden shovels to help dig an ambulance out of the snow.


Virtually no shops were open on Friday or Saturday. Places began to reopen on Sunday, but in the absence of any deliveries, most shelves were bare of perishables. Queues in places resembled something out of Soviet Russia. The Mister went out for bread and milk and came back with pretzel rolls and lactose free milk because that’s all that was available.

The snow in Dublin was all melted from the streets by Sunday night. Only small traces remained on the sidewalks Monday morning on our way to creche. By Tuesday the snow was a memory in the city centre. But not in the shops.

“Sorry, there are no toasties this morning, guys,” one of the staff members called out in creche as I was dropping off Hawkeye. She was trying to placate a cross four year old. “You see, there’s this shortage of bread in Ireland right now, so we don’t have any toasties I’m afraid. I brought up corn flakes though!”

Seriously? Three days later and the capital of Ireland still hasn’t managed to restock its bread aisles? I was back in our local convenience shops this evening and the shelves looked much like they did the day before. Certain things looked pretty well stocked while others (ready made meals, drinks, milk) remained sparse. There were fresh rolls and bagels but little in the way of actual bread.

Honestly, if I didn’t have sixty million other things to do, this would be the sort of thing I would actually write to our local representatives about. I mean, yes it’s important to make sure doctors and nurses can get to their jobs in the middle of a storm, but so is securing the food supply in an urban area! As it happens, I don’t think anyone would have actually starved due to lack of food in the shops in this instance but it doesn’t speak for good levels of organisation that almost three days after the storm, shops are still only half stocked in the city centre. “Over here we’re used to keeping well stocked for bad weather” my mother replied when I describing these circumstances to her. “Personally, I could probably last two weeks in the house without having to set foot in a shop if the weater turned really bad. I mean, I’d run out of bead by the third day, but I’d just start making pancakes!”

Of course, not everything was dire during the storm. Snowmen and snowwomen (yes, that’s a snowwoman in the pink bra back there!) sprung up all over the place, in some cases, almost literally like mushrooms, or perhaps like some snow versions of meerkats peeking out over the drifts.

It was fairly sticky snow, but still nothing like what I was used to. Clumping it turned it almost immediately to packed ice. And the first snowfall on Tuesday evening actually looked almost like bits of styrofoam packing being thrown on the set of a theatre. It was too soft to be called hail but too perfectly round to really be called fluffy snow.

Anyway, we’ve all survived with varying stories. Storm Emma in 2018 will certainly go down in history as another marker in the changing global climate. The snow has melted leaving half-empty shelves, reduced water pressure, and localised flooding in its wake. Don’t worry, we still have plenty of things to complain about!


  1. I’m from England, even our shop shelves were empty! I couldn’t even get bread on Sunday for kids school samdwiched next day! … Yes we do like to complain. X

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know *some* disruption during and immediately after may be inevitable, but to still be out of basic consumer goods on Tuesday seems excessive to me in the current circumstances. More like logistical failure somewhere in the supply chain rather than a truly unavoidable condition due to mother nature.

      Liked by 1 person

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