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article image'Beast from the East' sends Siberian cold blast across Europe

By Joseph Schmid (AFP)     Feb 27, 2018 in Environment

A blast of Siberian weather sent temperatures plunging across much of Europe Tuesday, carpeting palm-lined beaches in snow and prompting warnings for the homeless and elderly people.

While the Arctic is seeing record high temperatures, at least 24 people have died across Europe in the past four days in a snap which has brought snow even to the balmy Mediterranean islands of Corsica and Capri.

At least five deaths were reported in Poland alone on Monday as the mercury dropped to minus 16 degrees Celsius (minus four Fahrenheit) overnight in Warsaw, bringing to 53 the number of Polish deaths from freezing since November.

Cities across the continent were providing emergency shelter and relief to rough sleepers, which accounted for most of the deaths since Friday, including three in France, three in the Czech Republic and one in Italy.

In Belgium, towns including Etterbeek, Verviers and Charleroi have resorted to ordering police to detain homeless people if they refuse to go to shelters.

The Red Cross, which has set up emergency teams across Europe, urged people to keep an eye on neighbours and relatives.

"Just knocking on someone's door to check they have everything they need can make a huge difference. It could even be the difference between life and death," it said.

The charity also issued public appeals for 10,000 blankets in France, where about 50 local officials in the Paris region have vowed to spend Tuesday night outdoors to call attention to the plight of those with nowhere to sleep.

"The point is not to stage a show, but to denounce a system that isn't working," said Mama Sy, a deputy mayor in the French suburb of Etampes.

Paris authorities counted 3,000 rough-sleepers in the city's first-ever homeless census this month, warning it was likely significantly underestimated.

- 'Siberian bear' -

In England, where heavy snow was dumped on London on Tuesday, tabloids have dubbed the snap "the Beast from the East", while the Dutch are calling it the "Siberian bear" and Swedes the "snow cannon".

British Airways cancelled roughly 60 flights in and out of London Heathrow airport.

The Met Office forecaster said rural communities could be cut off for days by snowdrifts, warning of "long interruptions to power supplies and other services such as telephone and mobile phone networks."

Some of the iciest conditions were reported in Italy, where many schools and daycare centres were closed, to the consternation of parents already preparing for closures next week linked to this weekend's general election.

Italians' anger was also growing over nationwide disruptions to rail services as a lack of defrosting equipment on the tracks meant workers having to clear snow and ice by hand.

In Naples, the airport was closed early Tuesday and bus services in the city halted because of ice, though the weather was getting warmer in Rome, where schools were expected to reopen Wednesday.

A driver in Turin got a fright when a stalactite broke off from an overhead bridge and shattered his windshield -- though he managed to keep control of his vehicle.

- More cold coming -

Russia's Gazprom, a major gas supplier to Europe, said it had sent record exports to the continent over the past six days, peaking at 667 million cubic metres (23.6 billion cubic feet) on Monday as people turned up their thermostats.

And the cold looked set to persist into Wednesday, when Meteo France forecasts heavy snowfalls arriving from Spain that will blanket most of the country.

Austria's ZAMG weather office said that even with the current cold snap, this winter had still been unusually mild and wet.

"Since the 1930s winters have become 0.25 degrees warmer every decade on average," it said.

Even in the Netherlands, ice-skating fans were being warned the ice was not yet thick enough on the canals and ditches that criss-cross the countryside.

"If you go skating on natural ice, it is advisable to take a rescue rope," skater Paul Steehouder told the NRC newspaper.

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