Is the Beast from the East making a return to Yorkshire?

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Is it going to snow over the Christmas and New Year period?

It is the £7million question that Richard Marr, a highways manager at North Yorkshire County Council gets asked every year.

A gritter in action over the NYCC road network.

A gritter in action over the NYCC road network.

In short, the answer this year would have been a no. But that is not to say that it might not have. He admits they have got it wrong in the past.

Responsible for making sure that 4,400 km of roads across North Yorkshire are maintained and passable at all times his team are watching the weather forecast 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

They get 11 forecasts given for the different parts of North Yorkshire, three times a day. So with 99 separate forecasts all giving detailed information - it can get quite technical.

He says: “The road surface temperature can be six degrees lower than the air temperature and that can be quite difficult to predict and if it has been a hot summer that warms the earth’s surface and keeps it warmer.
“We have decision makers on standby looking at all this through the day and night and instructing contractors to do what we want them to.”

Salt stocks in one of the council barns.

Salt stocks in one of the council barns.

The gritter drivers are made up of 86 council employees, who during the day might be working on the roads filling potholes, and 107 farming contractors who can also be called upon if needed.

They are responsible for making sure that 54 per cent of North Yorkshire’s roads are treated and a standard gritter can spread eight tonnes of salt in two hours.
Due to the varied nature of North Yorkshire’s road network, the county employs different kinds of
gritters so alongside four-wheel-drive vehicles that can manoeuvre the minor roads there are 16 six-wheel-drive gritters that have 50 per cent more salt capacity and three small 7.5-tonne gritters for locations other gritters cannot reach due to weight or size restrictions.

Dangerous

But, while they are treating road surfaces to make driving and getting around easier for the public - it is quite a tricky job for them despite having to have high standards of driving qualifications.

Mr Marr said: “They drive along the ice and the salt is coming out of the back. We have had a few (vehicles) go over in the past few years.
“They are not invincible, it is a skilled job and can be dangerous at times.”

Added to that he says, is that despite high tech forecasting equipment - the weather can’t always be predicted.

“Sometimes when the forecast is wrong - we get it wrong.”

Mr Marr is the highways area manager for the Scarborough and Ryedale area and he refers to the winter of 2010 where parts of the county, in particular Whitby on the coast, saw snow fall and drifts that led to the town being almost cut off.
He said: “We have been caught out a couple of times in Whitby. We have said showers but what is out at sea the wind has blown in land all of a sudden. We we were out gritting but had to go back for the snow ploughs - we had been caught out.”

The authority starts with 55,000 tonnes of salt but last winter, which was not as bad as previous ones NYCC used 77,000 tonnes. A particularly bad one like 2010 or the Beast from the East a few years ago and the council ended up using 120,000 tonnes.

So what if they run out?

Mr Marr explains: “We get the salt from Boulby Mine. It is like a supermarket. As we use it, we get more delivered. There is also a mine at Cheshire and apart from that they are overseas. The industry can’t deliver the quantity of salt everybody is using.
“During that winter of 2010 we ran low. We did actually start thinking about spreading grit instead of salt but the weather change otherwise it could have got quite embarrassing. We have kept a tighter control on stock since then.”

And back to the all important Christmas weather question.
“We have seen the headlines about worst winter ever but the forecasts are telling us it will be average. But they are talking about a polar vortex and if that happens at Christmas we will get showers but by January/February there is a good chance of bitterly cold winds and if that happens at the same time we are in for some snow.”

Gritting facts
NYCC has an annual gritting budget of £7m and one of England’s largest road networks to
look after, second only to the Highways England.
It has 86 gritters, 107 farming contractors and several snowblowers.
55,000 tonnes of salt are stored in barns and there are 8,000 salt heaps and bins
around the county.
The gritting network covers 4,400km or 54 per cent of the county’s roads.
Priority 1 routes, that connect or pass through towns, are meant to be gritted by 7am. Priority 2
routes, access to local communities, are treated by 10am.
Crews are on call 24 hours a day and typically start gritting at 5am.