Treacherous waters

Monday 20th Dec 2010 by theWeather Club

It seems that the transport services are not the only people who are struggling to come to terms with what may become the new realities of a British winter. Last winter saw a series of record breaking low temperatures, and the word ‘unprecedented’ bandied liberally – if inaccurately – about as various officials tried to explain system failures caused by the cold.

This year seems to be going the same way, and the resulting temperatures are turning one of the country's favourite outdoor features into a serious hazard. Ponds, canals, lakes and rivers abound in the UK, a natural consequence of the rainfall for which Britain is so famed. They are some of our favourite places to spend time on warm summer days, the problem is they also appear to be popular on frigid winter ones. People not used to frozen open water are treating it as a winter playground, often with tragic results, as the last few days have shown.

Emergency services were called to Doggett's Lake at Southend on Sunday afternoon after a man fell through the ice. He was about 100m from the shore of the lake when pulled out by fire crews, and while alive at the time he died later in hospital. Martyn Hodder from Essex County Fire and Rescue emphasised that just minutes in icy water can be fatal. "Incidents like this show how important it is not to walk on the ice, ever," he said. "There is no way to tell whether or not the ice will hold your weight and by the time you find out it won't it is already too late."

In Hillsborough Park, Sheffield, a 13-year-old boy was rescued after trying to walk across the frozen water to an island in the middle of a pond when the ice gave way. A spokesman for the local fire services said: “This boy has failed to heed our warnings and had an extremely narrow escape. Every year, people in the UK die when entering frozen water. Hypothermia can set in very quickly, and this affects people's ability to escape. It seems that a further cold spell is on its way and we would urge people to stay away from frozen water to ensure they their family does not have to endure a tragedy this Christmas.”

In another incident two skaters had to be rescued at Old Castle Pond and Dafen Pond in Llanelli, which is over 30m deep in parts. “Some people have been risking their safety by attempting to walk or skate on the frozen ponds,” said Paul Murray, Carmarthenshire grounds maintenance manager. “Not only is this a grave risk to themselves but also jeopardises the safety of anyone who may have to attempt to rescue them. We can't emphasise enough the dangers of trying to walk, skate or play on this ice." He pointed out that although ice has been found to be more than 15cm thick in some places, the ice was often much thinner in the middle of ponds where the water is deepest.

The effects of climate change are in the news all the time these days, mostly discussed on a international or governmental level. However we should not forget that in the end it is what we find when we step out of our front door that really matters, and when this changes – as it inevitably will – we must learn to deal with whatever new conditions come with it.