“Is snow a sufficient source of water for horses kept outdoors in winter?” and other snow questions you never asked

Some parts of the country are in the grip of the worst wintery weather since 1963 or 1947, or whenever you think it was last worst. We are, it seems, running out of our metaphorical and literal supplies of grit.

So stay in - for a quick armchair excursion through snow based stories in the scientific literature.  
 
Apparently snow is a sufficient source of water for horses kept outdoors in winter. In March 2005 Norwegian vets reported that due to extreme weather conditions, a flock of Icelandic horses “had to manage for several days on snow as the source of free water.” When, at last, the horses could be reached, they showed very little interest in drinking water they were offered. They had been eating silage as usual, along with snow. Their blood tests showed they were not dehydrated. So, if you own an Icelandic horse you can leave him/her/it to it, in this cold snap.
 
Human locomotion on snow: determinants of economy and speed of skiing across the ages is a jolly piece of research, also from 2005, which explored the evolution of skiing in the last few thousand years. Three enthusiastic Italians looked at how humans adapted to move effectively over land where a covering of snow prevented them from travelling as usual. As a result of their research, they “identified the sets of skis corresponding to the ‘milestones’ of skiing evolution, in terms of ingenuity and technology, built replicas of them and measured the metabolic energy associated to their use in a climate-controlled ski tunnel.” After lots of algebra the conclusion was pretty much as skiers and cultural anthropologists might have have surmised with a lot less effort expended. “For each new ski there was a benefit in terms of less fuel needed to cover the same distance.” This doesn't seem surprising to me either and I'm neither a skier nor a cultural anthropologist.
 
There are more snow based research papers that are worth noting but they are not of practical concern in most of the UK today. For example, the heroic Snow blindness: its causes, effects, changes, prevention and treatment from the British Journal of Ophthalmology in 1921 is based on the author’s experience in the Antarctic 1911-13 France 1916-17 and on the Northern Front in Russia in 1919.
 
And then there’s I’ll do it when the snow melts which is off the point of snow entirely, subtitled, as it is The effects of deadlines and delayed outcomes on rule governed behaviour  in preschool children.
 
In other news apparently Bacterial activity in South Pole snow is questionable and Snow conditions may create an invisible barrier for lynx. However A report of dangerously high carbon monoxide levels in the passenger compartment of a snow obstructed vehicle from 2004 sounds as if it may contain some practical information for us in the UK.  
 
The researchers from the Department of Emergency Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine in the US were early pioneers of what should now be known as the “Top Gear” experimental method. They buried a 1992 sedan in snow to the level of the undercarriage and turned on the ignition. They then measured the carbon monoxide levels at two and a half minute intervals and conducted six trials in a variety of circumstances – e.g. windows open a crack, or open a bit more or the exhaust pipe obstructed totally or partially. The primary outcome was the time at which a lethal carbon monoxide level was detected. This happened within minutes in all cases though it did take longest when the window was open wider. Only when the exhaust pipe was completely clear did the carbon monoxide level stay at zero. So that's another use for a shovel when you think you might get stuck in snow. Keep the exhaust clear if you are going to run the engine to keep warm.  
 
We now move on to rather more common but, alas, still grim snow dangers - heart attack and fractures.
 
From Canada, whose snow based credentials are impeccable, we find a heartening news in January 2006.  They point out what is now obvious to us British – that snowfall can cause chaos in urban centres.  And then they say that snow can put considerable strain on health services. As heart attack may be triggered by stress and overstretched health services could impinge on the care provided to patients with heart attack, they compared ‘snow days’ with ‘non snow days’, assessing the incidence of heart attack, the delivery of medical care and deaths in hospital. But they found only minor effects, if any, of snow days.
 
However, rumblings about shovelling snow and heart attack crop up in the literature quite often. It's usally an American obsession but in 1977, in a letter to the British Medical Journal, a coroner is quoted as saying that as many men over the age of 50 have unsuspected coronary artery disease, they should leave unaccustomed physical activity in snowy conditions to younger men, to reduce their chances of suffering a sudden and fatal heart attack.
 
Back in 1981 there were apparently 200 deaths and 40-50,000 disabling injuries in the US annually, from falls on snow and ice. In 1986 the British situation was similar. In a letter to the British Medical Journal entitled Epidemics of fractures during periods of snow and ice the author showed that there were two and a half times as many fractures during icy weather and linked this to the absense of grit on pavements. He concludes “…. the size of this problem gained some publicity in the national and local press; there was also a parliamentary inquiry in the House of Commons and talks between the health and local authorities. Although in some areas improved gritting and salting of roads has given the impression that something has been done (it is now common to see pedestrians walking on the cleaned roads in snowy periods as they are safer than the pavements), the real cause, the slippery pavements, remains unattended. Renewed efforts are needed to prompt administrative and legal changes regarding the clearing of pavements if such epidemics of fractures are to be prevented in future”
 
Almost 25 years later and this is familar stuff once more. Suburban Britain does not have a snow habit but, as we are demonstrating, it is possible to muddle through rare snow events. But grit on pavements does, surely, need sorting out. Finally.