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Russian Arctic Freeze Threatening European Gas Supply


Officials in the Russian capital, Moscow, have instituted an emergency energy conservation program, amid an arctic freeze that is already hindering gas supplies to Europe. In Moscow, temperatures have plunged to - 30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) this week and are expected to drop still lower.

While Russia is renowned for its harsh and seemingly endless winters, forecasters say the cold spell gripping the capital this week has been witnessed only two other times in the past 100 years.

As a result, city officials have begun targeting hundreds of non-essential factories and businesses for power cuts in a bid to conserve energy for more essential purposes like heating homes and hospitals. Electricity for billboard advertisements, neon casino lights, and floodlit construction sites across the capital have also gone dark.

The chief supervisor at Russia's national utility giant, Unified Energy Systems, Alexander Bondarenko, says the moves are only temporary and all services will be restored to full capacity, once the cold spell loosens its grip. But Bondarenko warns the next few days could prove difficult.

Meanwhile, Russia's largest energy concern, state-controlled Gazprom, has begun reducing natural gas supplies to Europe (Italy, Hungary, and Serbia) in order to conserve supplies for needy Russian consumers.

In comments broadcast on Russian television, Gazprom's press secretary, Sergei Kupriyanov, sought to reassure a nervous public many of whom already question the reliability of aging, Soviet-era centralized heating systems common to many Russian homes. He says the Russian people remain priority number one for the company.

Kupriyanov says he hopes Gazprom's European customers understand the necessity of such emergency measures and plan accordingly.

Local television news channels broadcast images of homeless people huddling in underground metro stations, or sleeping atop steam vents across the city, to try and escape the cold. Meanwhile, a small number of Moscow's younger residents appear to like the deep freeze in that it affords them the opportunity to stay home from school.

Forecasters say the frigid weather is the result of an Arctic air mass from Siberia that swept over the western part of Russia, where the majority of the country's population lives. It is uncertain exactly how long the trend will last. But forecasters say they expect the already bitter temperatures to drop even further in the coming days.

Despite the brutal weather, Russian Orthodox faithful took their annual plunge into holes cut into thick ice on rivers and ponds across the country, in a ritual to imitate the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. Orthodox followers believe the water to be holy on this day of the Epiphany and take to the icy water to cleanse themselves.

A believer says ice swimming on this day is a personal quest for him, both in body and soul.

Other regions outside Moscow are also experiencing unusually frigid weather. In southwest Russia's Volga region, a burst main left nearly 10,000 people without central heating or water, with the outside temperature at -36 Celsius. In the Far North, temperatures hit a record low of -61 Celsius (-78 Fahrenheit).