Can building snowmen really help to prevent flooding?

Veronica Byrne Snowmen can help slow down the rate of thaw, according to experts

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As government directives go, advising people to build a snowman to help prevent flooding is among the more bizarre.

An Environment Agency spokesman has been widely quoted as suggesting snowmen could help stop floods by slowing down thawing.

The agency has since qualified its comments, saying that it is unlikely to make much difference.

But experts say that, as strange as it may sound, there is some truth behind the suggestion.

'Makes some sense'

Build the perfect snowman

Duncan Hamilton

"The best snowmen look comical, leaning slightly to one side.

"Ideally, you want snow that is slightly wet.

"For the body, take an empty, clean dustbin, pack it with snow and turn it out. If you want to, you can pat snow on to it to make your snowman rounder - no-one wants a thin snowman. Add a big ball for the head.

"For eyes, use ping pong balls with black dots drawn on with a black marker pen. You could also use ping pong balls for buttons.

"For a nose, I don't think you can beat a carrot. Snowmen look better with a lop-sided smile, so I'd use black card cut in a crescent shape.

"You could use twigs for arms, but it's much nicer to build them out of snow. You could also build legs from two columns of snow and add feet.

"Finally, you can give him a hat and a scarf can help marry up the head and the body and cover the join."

Duncan Hamilton, ice sculptor

Dr Sim Reaney, lecturer in physical geography at the University of Durham, said: "On a very practical level, it does actually make some sense.

"I've read through some of the stuff myself. The more you pile up snow, the longer it takes to melt.

"It was an interesting headline but there is some science behind it. I can see how it would work.

"Rain on snow is a big cause of flood events. Any snow that is compacted takes longer to thaw, whether it be on a road or as a snowman."

'White terracotta army'

Dr Reaney said that in urban areas, where melted snow runs directly off roads and pavements into drains, snowmen would make more of a difference than in fields where it would take longer for the water to filter into watercourses.

"You are making a difference," he said.

"It is action at a sensitive place in the landscape. You are doing something where it needs to happen."

But Dr Reaney was sceptical that snowmen could have a major impact on the rate of thaw.

"If everybody made a snowman, it doesn't actually take up that much snow," he said.

"The country is covered from top to bottom."

Weather forecaster Jim Bacon of WeatherQuest, based at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, agreed.

"If you look at the masses of fields we have, you'd probably need a white terracotta army," he said.

Snowman watching  TV An Environment Agency spokesman suggested snowmen would help prevent the potential risk of flooding
Luton Town snowman Sally Hockham took this picture of a Luton Town-supporting snowman
Snow rabbit and bear Lauren Davies from Milton Keynes made this snow rabbit and bear
Snow bear This bear was created by Jorden Evans and Debbie Smith of Tyseley
Tall snowman This tall snowman was spotted towering over the tennis courts at Ipswich Sports Club
Children at St Marys RC Primary School build a snowman Children at St Mary's RC Primary School in Burnley took part in a snowman-building competition
Snow angel This snow angel at Peachfield Common, Malvern, Worcestershire was created by Ed Elliott

But Mr Bacon said the underlying theory behind the suggestion was sound.

"Snow is melting all the time from the warmth of the ground underneath it, and the warmth of the air moving over it," he said.

"If you roll it up into a ball, you're decreasing the surface area and that would slow down the rate of melting."

'60 million snowmen'

The flaw in the theory, he said, was the time lag between the snow melting and the water reaching rivers.

Fun in the snow

Children at St Marys RC Primary School with their snowman

Year Five pupils at St Mary's RC Primary School in Burnley, Lancashire, took part in a snowman-building competition on Monday.

Their teacher, Jennifer Acklam, said: "We thought it would prevent any snowball fights.

"The children worked in teams of three or four and they had a fantastic time. Some said it was the best day they'd ever had at school.

"As well as snowmen, we had snow dogs and even a snow tunnel. Some of them are still standing."

One of the pupils, Charlie, said: "It was fabulous because all of us had a good day and worked together."

"A lot of the time when you get flooding, it's due to the slow accumulation of water. It takes a while for water to filter through the ground and into the rivers.

"It might well be that the rate of melt from snowmen coincides with the water going into the rivers over a longer time frame so it wouldn't help."

Professor Kevin Hiscock, an expert in hydrology at UEA, said: "You'd need, say, 10 sq metres (107 sq ft) of snow to make a snowman.

"The catchment area of the River Wensum in Norfolk is 600 sq km (231 sq miles), so that's the equivalent of 60 million snowmen."

So what can you do? The latest advice from the Environment Agency is perhaps more sensible, if not quite as much fun.

"The most important thing anyone can do to protect themselves from flooding is to check out if they are in a flood risk area, and sign up to free flood warnings on the Environment Agency website," said a spokesman.

The snowman has a traffic cone for a nose and plant pots for eyes

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