Helsinki's 'snowhow' keeps city open during harsh winter

Helsinki (AFP) –

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While intense snowfall paralysed parts of Europe this week, residents of the Finnish capital prepared for only mild disruption thanks to an army of snow clearers who keep Helsinki running through even the iciest conditions.

In a vast underground depot, foreman Mika Merivirta briefs his team at the start of a shift, standing among rows of yellow snowploughs, diggers and blue gritting lorries emblazoned with the logo of "Stara", the city's maintenance arm.

Helsinki's warning system will give Merivirta just one or two hours' notice that new snow is coming and the streets will need ploughing.

"I'm on my phone calling people and they'll be here in 20-30 minutes," he tells AFP, "so it's like the fire department!"

Four huge vehicles file outside into the 50km/h (30mph) winds and horizontal snow, and begin clearing one of Helsinki's main thoroughfares, used by buses, emergency vehicles and high-volume traffic.

Next the teams plough the side streets, skillfully navigating pedestrians, parked cars and other hazards, piling up the snow to be taken away once the storm passes.

During the three-day blizzard, which deposited 60cm of snow, Stara's 400 winter street maintenance staff have been working round the clock, sometimes in shifts of 16 hours.

"They're most likely here more than they're at their homes," Merivirta says.

"They're proud of doing this job," and of keeping Helsinki functioning with their 250 snowploughs.

"A few days later nobody even knows that we've been doing it, but for us it's a special thing."

- Preparedness price tag -

Weatherproofing the EU's northernmost capital comes at a price: Helsinki's winter maintenance budget is approximately 25 million euros ($30 million).

But with snow a possibility for six months of the year, the investment in "snowhow" allows schools, businesses and public services to stay open.

This week's storm, the first of the winter, caused initial public transport delays, but nothing on the scale seen in cities such as Madrid or parts of the UK which have been shut down by wintry weather this month.

As residents tread carefully along the whitened pavements in -20C (-4F) temperatures, parents pull children on sledges while the occasional skier glides down the street.

"We've been working all week from the office and of course it's been a bit harder to get in with the snow outside, but we totally managed," life coach and Helsinki resident Jessi Christian told AFP.

"That's one of the things that I appreciate about Finland, that if there's snow people are prepared," the 29-year-old said.

But the ploughing has an environmental cost too: the snow is either dumped into the sea -- along with any litter and grit caught up in it -- or melted, which consumes energy.

- 'It's snow problem' -

In search of more eco-friendly ways of handling the snow, the city called on innovators to suggest new approaches.

"As well as the environmental risks, there are not enough snow depots for the growing city needs," Tero Koppinen, production manager at Stara, told AFP.

Among the winning entries of the "This Is Snow Problem" competition were a pollution filter for the sea, a more energy-efficient melting system and a digital tool to show citizens in real-time where the snow is being ploughed.

But Koppinen believes the future lies in a prototype scheme to melt the snow in the neighbourhood where it falls, using waste heat from district heating systems, avoiding the need to transport it across town.

"We even have the utopian idea of using the meltwater to create energy through electrolysis for fuel cell systems," Koppinen said.

"But we're quite far off that."

Until then, Helsinki's squadron of snow workers remain a vital defence against the freezing weather.