Heavy snow slams North American business

CHICAGO/HAMBURG Thu Jan 7, 2010 2:44pm EST

People walk in the snow at Central Park in New York, December 20, 2009. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

People walk in the snow at Central Park in New York, December 20, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

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CHICAGO/HAMBURG (Reuters) - Blasts of Arctic winds and drifting snow gripped much of the northern United States and Canada on Thursday, slowing business in the agricultural sector and threatening to disrupt natural gas production.

In Europe, heavy snowfall protected the wheat crop in the continent's western region from being damaged by frosts.

Frigid temperatures in the United States continued to support crude oil futures, which have risen the previous 10 sessions as the weather boosted demand for heating fuel.

Most of Florida's citrus crop escaped damage from freezing temperatures this week, but growers are bracing for a renewed freeze threat this weekend.

Energy research company Tudor Pickering Holt & Co in Houston said natural gas production might be disrupted if cold weather causes oil well heads to freeze in key producing states like Texas and Louisiana.

Treacherous road conditions amid the snow and ice was slowing the pace of business in the agricultural sector, especially in the movement of grains and livestock.

"It's been a brutal start to 2010 and we are witnessing a cold snap we haven't seen in a decade," said Missouri state climatologist Pat Guinan. "Temperatures are cold enough that salt (used to melt snow on roads) is not effective."

As much as 30 inches of snow was on the ground in Spencer, Iowa, late Wednesday with another 5-6 inches falling overnight. Heavy drifting pushed officials to close roads in the western part of the largest corn and soybean producing state.

"(The snow) is not sitting still. It's blowing across the countryside and it makes it a challenge to keep roadways open," said Iowa state climatologist Harry Hillaker.

Hillaker said cattle were at risk of suffocation as snow accumulates and the animals crowd around each other to stay warm and avoid the winds. Dehydration was also a risk.

"Very cold air is also very dry. It can be very challenging with the temperature falling well below-zero to keep all the water lines open," he said.

FREEZE IN CANADA

In Alberta, Canada, freezing temperatures have not had any significant effect on cattle movement, said Ken Ziegler, a beef specialist with the provincial government.

Some ranchers may wait to deliver cattle until temperatures warm up, but the deep freeze isn't expected to last long enough to have any major impact, he said.

Temperatures in the Texas Panhandle were forecast to dip to the lowest level since 2002 but, with weather there expected to remain dry, livestock were not seen at risk.

"I haven't seen any disruption. Cold and dry is not a problem," said Mike Heard who runs a 45,000-head feedlot in Hereford, Texas.

In Florida, some of the coldest air of the season was expected to hit orange groves over the weekend, possibly damaging citrus groves.

Concerns over freeze damage this week pushed up frozen concentrated orange juice futures in New York, which on Wednesday hit their highest level since January 2008.

Another storm system, currently developing over the U.S. Delta, could head into the Midwest next week, but it's too early to tell, said Mike Palmerino, meteorologist at DTN Meteorlogix.

"It is possible some of the storminess is going to move up into the Midwest during the latter part of next week," Palmerino said. "The U.S. model is a little more interested in bringing the storm up (toward the Midwest), while the European model is not."

SNOW BLANKETS WHEAT FIELDS IN EUROPE

Arctic-like weather also swept across European key wheat producers France, Germany and Britain.

But recently planted grains are thought to have built up enough resistance to withstand the freezing temperatures, while the snow cover is expected to protect the grain from freeze damage.

"There is no doubt we had a narrow escape," one German grains analyst said. "A lot of snow fell over the new year holiday period which is providing good protection from the frosts."

(Additional reporting by Rod Nickel, Ed Stoddard, Anna Driver, Rene Pastor, Michael Hogan, Valerie Parent, Nigel Hunt and Catherine Hornby; editing by Jim Marshall)