UK faces coldest winter in 30 years – forecasts
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* Matthew Taylor and Sam Jones
* guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 5 January 2010 20.09 GMT
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Much of the UK was blanketed in heavy snow as the extreme weather headed south and forecasters warned that the country was on course for its coldest winter in 30 years.
The Met Office issued an alert that nearly half a metre of snow was due to fall in some areas as the freezing conditions that brought chaos to the north and Scotland todayspread.
Tony Waters, the Met Office chief forecaster, said: "This is expected to cause disruption to transport networks and could lead to problems with power supplies."
A spokesman for the prime minister said the government was doing all it could to keep the country running.
"The weather is taking a turn for the worse," he said. "The Highways Agency has kept the vast majority of major road networks running. We are in close contact with local authorities and it is a situation we will keep a very close eye on."
Forecasters say the cold snap, which began in mid-December, is the longest since 1981 and warned that there was no end in sight. "I would normally be loth to look beyond five to seven days but the way the conditions are set at the moment I think the cold weather is not going to change for some time," said Stephen Davenport, senior meteorologist at MeteoGroup.
"I will stick my neck out and say it will be here for a couple of weeks and possibly longer." He said if the freezing conditions continued for the rest of the month the UK would be on course for its coldest winter since 1979.
The snow was expected to hit southern counties of England with almost 40cm predicted to fall on Salisbury Plain overnight. Heavy snow was also expected across London and parts of Wales.
Waters said: "The heaviest snowfall this evening and tonight is expected across parts of Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire where fresh snowfall of 15 to 20cm is expected widely, and locally in excess of 30cm. This is expected to cause disruption to transport networks and could lead to problems with power supplies."
The National Grid issued a rare warning to power suppliers to use less gas todayafter a 30% rise on normal seasonal demand. It has urged power firms to switch to coal and order more gas supplies from Belgium and Norway.
The business secretary, Lord Mandelson, told the BBC that it was "a time of special pressure on the grid" but did not address claims from the Conservatives that Britain has only eight days' worth of gas storage left.
Meanwhile the stockpiles of gritting salt held by councils for roads are running thin. Emergency deliveries were made to Fife council in Scotland, and in Wales Pembrokeshire council warned that gritting lorries were struggling to cope with the "extraordinary" conditions.
Derek Turner, network operations director at the Highways Agency, said: "We are working flat out to keep our roads safe and serviceable for use. However, it is very important to drive appropriately for the conditions; and even when roads are treated and appear ice- and snow-free they should still be negotiated with care."
Manchester, Liverpool John Lennon and Leeds airports were closed today and further delays were expected tomorrow at Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton and Newcastle.
Train services between London and Leeds on the east coast mainline were cancelled and operators were bracing themselves for more delays tomorrow.
Britain's road network also struggled to cope with crashes that closed many motorways. A driver was killed when two lorries collided on the M60 near Bredbury, Greater Manchester, and police and the Highways Agency have again warned commuters against travelling unless their journey is essential.
In Scotland Inverness was effectively cut off from the south after the police announced that the A9 – the main arterial road to the Highlands – had been closed by snow in the Cairngorms.
This followed the closure of the main railway line to Inverness after a goods train careered out of control in heavy snow.Sarah Holland a spokeswoman for the Met Office said there was no sign to an end of the freezing conditions.
"The current cold spell, which started in mid-December is already the longest since 1981, and as far as we can tell at the moment it is going to last for at least another couple of weeks."