14 November 2006

Snow Big Deal

Friday, October 27, the day that Jane and I rode the Pendolino train north from Helsinki, was the day Oulu was hit by a major snowstorm, which dropped at least 10 centimeters in all. It was our first major snowfall, and it wasn’t clear what we should expect at that point. Some said that the weather would likely warm up. Others predicted that the ground would stay covered until April. The attitude here is “let ‘er rip.” There are no weather wimps in Finland. On the contrary, people take pride in enduring whatever Mother Nature dishes out.

During the subsequent two weeks, temperatures have been consistently around 10 degrees below zero, dipping down to -15 at one point. For a couple of days, the mercury hovered around zero, but it wasn’t quite warm enough to melt anything. In the meantime, we have received 4 or 5 centimeters of fresh snow to replace the volume lost to natural compacting. I have been paying attention to snow management techniques, and I am struck by several things.

My main experience with winter has been in the American Midwest, where the winters are hard, but different from winters here. In Finland, everyone seems to agree that the snow is somehow drier and therefore less slippery. People say that it’s the dry snow that allows for winter biking.

Also, the typical pattern in the Midwest is for temperatures to oscillate between freezing and thawing. When it warms up, water makes its way underground. Then it freezes and cracks the pavement. Then it does the same thing all over again. This is why road conditions loom so large in Midwestern cocktail party conversations. In Cleveland, people curse the “chuckholes,” in Pittsburgh, the “potholes,” but they amount to the same thing.

I have a feeling this freezing and thawing syndrome is just not a salient issue in Finland. We don’t know yet how this winter will unfold, but it seems likely that the ground will stay covered as temperatures drop, and that any damage caused by thawing and re-freezing is likely to be minimal. There is, in addition, an important difference in street architecture. Here, as I have noted in an earlier post, paving stones are used extensively, and they would seem to be less vulnerable than asphalt to cracking up.

But in addition to that, there is the issue of attitude. When it snows at home, I run out to shovel, and I understand my duty as the removal of all snow from the sidewalks under my jurisdiction. I prefer not to leave any snow on the ground, because it can freeze and turn to treacherous ice. Sometimes, after clearing the snow, if I suspect that it is likely to snow some more, I will drop a layer of rock salt, or the synthetic equivalent, to keep everything moist, which allows for easy removal of new snow. Though my neighbors may be more or less fastidious, my sense is that all of us conceive of the job in roughly the same terms.

In Finland, by contrast, it seems to be assumed that a layer of snow and ice will always remain under foot. That layer, amounting to 2 centimeters or more, is treated with gravel to improve traction. But there is no attempt to remove the foundation, as it were. I have noticed a handful of exceptions. A few of the merchants in the city center have completely cleared the walkways in front of their shops. Because of the paving stones, this must have been very difficult. I have detected no use of rock salt, or any other de-icing agent, which makes me think that they might be illegal in Finland. But that’s just a guess.

I suspect that the real variable is, as I have said, attitude. In the States, we think that complete removal of the snow is not wholly unrealistic. In Oulu, I think it is assumed that snow and ice are among the elements with which one must learn to live—in the way that, as John Brinckerhoff Jackson taught us many years ago, people who live in adobe houses or thatched huts must not expect the walls or the roof to completely succeed in keeping nature at bay. On the contrary, they must expect nature to insinuate herself, to the point that the walls or roofs will need frequent repair, or even replacement. In reading about Finland, one finds frequent reference to the Finnish love of nature—of forest, lakes, and outdoor activities. I would submit that this is reflected in their instinct to manage the snow, rather than trying to make it go away.

I have been concerned up till now primarily with sidewalks and bike paths, but the street crews seem to employ the same strategy, except perhaps on expressways. Crews responded promptly to the first storm, and it did not take long for them to have the city streets and sidewalks, and even driveways and parking lots, plowed out. They also have been attentive to new snowfalls. But again, they have not at any point attempted to plow all the way down to the pavement. Snow removal in Finland is a little like the Middle Eastern approach to shaving.

One of the reasons that people here take snow in stride is that they use the right equipment. I noticed from the first that Finnish cars are equipped with studded tires. My experience with studded tires is limited to the 1960s and early ‘70s, back in Pennsylvania. That is because at some point, when it was observed that studded tires were chewing up the roads, they were banned. In Finland, by contrast, studded tires are mandated for six months of the year, and they are proscribed for the other six months. The U.S. Department of State summarizes the challenges of winter driving in Finland as follows, in prose that manages to be at once bureaucratic and comic:

Driving in Finland during the winter months can be hazardous. Daylight hours are very short and one should be comfortable with driving in darkness. Icy road conditions are common. If driving in Finland, the vehicle must be winterized with studded snow tires, and engine heaters are strongly recommended. When driving at night, drivers must be alert to moose wandering onto major roadways.

When you’re willing to coexist with nature, it’s just one durned thing after another, init?

P.S. In the photo up top, taken shortly after sunrise, those are University of Jyväskylä buildings on the other side of the frozen lake. Access is by way of the stunning suspension footbridge. This, by the way, is a new part of the university, not the famous campus designed by Alvar Aalto, which is in another part of the city.