Freak Winter Storm Socks New Zealand

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand, Aug. 15 (UPI) — A freak winter storm with heavy snow and bitterly cold weather hit New Zealand, grounding air traffic and closing roads, officials said.

Four people were taken to a hospital in Auckland after high winds dropped a tree on their home.

Forecasters warned people to avoid travel and to stay inside their vehicles if they become stranded, TVNZ ONE News reported Monday.

Roads in some areas were closed, with drivers stranded in community facilities such as libraries and recreation centers. Hundreds of passengers were stranded at Christchurch airport and officials said planes in Queenstown remained grounded.

“Welcome to the winter wonderland that is Wellington,” said Prime Minister John Key. “I can’t personally recall seeing snow in downtown Wellington. My wife tells me there is snow around our house, or at least there was for a short period of time in Auckland, so it’s very unusual. The main message to New Zealanders is to be … a little bit careful.”

Forecasters told Radio New Zealand snow fell in downtown Wellington for the first time in decades and warned of blizzard conditions on North Island.

The system is expected to continue into Thursday, forecasters said.

“I’ve been watching the weather closely for about 15 years and I’ve never seen a prediction like this,” said forecaster Philip Duncan.

A large high-pressure system stretching from Antarctica to the sub-tropics merged with three nearby low-pressure systems, causing the intensely cold weather and snow, Duncan said.

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