Tackling severe winters

16th of March 2011

Tom Crockford reports from Finland on how the severe winter weather takes its toll on towns and cities across Scandinavia.

This past winter has been particularly severe here in Scandinavia. It came early and it hit hard. In a ‘normal’ winter, Helsinki gets on average 100 snow days, while Stockholm has about 90, Oslo 80 and Copenhagen 60. This winter will extend those averages, and Helsinki’s all-time snowfall accumulation record of 110 cm is almost certain to be beaten.

Nevertheless, life goes on with none of the chaos and disruptions that much lesser amounts of snowfall create in more southerly located countries. One major reason for this is the fact that vehicles are required by law to be fitted with studded or ‘sticky’ tyres in winter. These provide a firm grip in icy conditions, and are a major contributor to the relatively minor number of weather-related vehicle accidents in this part of Europe.

But as with everything, there is a downside. Studded tyres cause considerable damage to asphalt surfaces, which is in itself a not-insignificant infrastructure cost factor. However Nordic capital cities are more concerned with the pollution factor, resulting from the use of studded tyres. The problem is the dust that is stirred up by the sand and asphalt residue created by the studs. In springtime, when city cleaning crews are tidying up after the long winter, the airborne dust can be particularly hazardous.

Helsinki is embarking on a two-year study to investigate ways of alleviating this problem. One of the primary aims of this study will be to determine the role studded tyres actually play in causing springtime air pollution. Both Stockholm and Oslo are also seeking effective means of combating this problem. In Stockholm, the authorities are experimenting with banning the use of studded tyres on certain city centre streets on days when the air quality is noticeably poor. Oslo is attempting to deal with the problem through implementing charges for the use of studded tyres, with fines for those who use them without authorisation.

Of course, a major concern in finding alternatives is the need to maintain road safety. The most obvious answer is the switch to so-called ‘sticky’ winter tyres. Instead of using studs, these have a tread composed of special rubber compounds that prevent them from hardening – as rubber normally does – in cold conditions. This enhances the performance of these tyres in ice and snow.

Just as an indication of their effectiveness, Bridgestone tested such a tyre against an ultra high performance summer tyre in icy conditions. At just 10 mph (16 kmh), the winter tyre stopped in 6.4 metres, while the summer tyre needed 14 metres to come to a stop. Just imagine the difference at, say, 50 mph (80 kmh)!  

Local Helsinki residents complain of the discomfort to the eyes and throat when this dust is stirred up by the spring street cleaning. Nevertheless, the Stockholm experiment of closing individual streets has not met with much support by the city of Helsinki authorities. To be effective they maintain, the ban should cover a much larger area, and this may prove to be impractical.

What I think authorities would really like is for everyone to leave their cars in the garage during wintertime and take the bus. But like most of the wishes of officialdom, this is just a pipedream.


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