More than 44,000 homes and businesses in Northern Ireland have been left without power after much of the United Kingdom was battered by snow, sleet and storm force winds overnight.

More disruption is expected throughout Friday and emergency services are already responding to a surge in weather-related call-outs with government agencies issuing a string of warnings urging the public to take care on the roads.

The weather has been so severe in the north of England that the Sellafield nuclear power station in Cumbria has been shut down.

The damage to Northern Ireland's power network was concentrated in south and eastern areas, and also parts of the North Coast, operator Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) said.

George Best Belfast City Airport has reopened its runway after being earlier forced to close due to the weather, while flights at Belfast International Airport have also been disrupted.

More than 70 schools in the region have been forced to shut for the day while commuters have faced hazardous conditions on the roads with snow drifts of up to 15.7in (40cm) reported.

Northern Ireland's World Cup football qualifying fixture against Russia has been postponed until Saturday afternoon with the agreement of both teams' governing bodies.

Ground staff worked throughout throughout the day in a bid to clear the pitch, but with the snow continuing to fall and the forecast remaining bleak, officials were left with little alternative but to reschedule Friday evening's match until 3pm on Saturday.

Staff at Sellafield were sent home from the reprocessing and waste storage facility but the site's operators said there were no safety issues, AFP reported.

A statement from the plant said: "In response to the current and predicted adverse weather conditions on and round the Sellafield site, as a precaution, a site incident has been declared and the plants have been moved safely to a controlled, shut down state.

"There is no reason to believe that there will be any off-site nuclear, environmental or conventional safety issues associated with the incident."

Elsewhere, more flooding is expected in the south-west as Thursday's heavy rain continues to pour throughout the day and overnight.

Snow is expected to blanket everywhere north of the M4 corridor, with up to eight inches hitting the worst affected areas of north-west of England, North Wales and south-west of Scotland.

Higher areas could even see up to 16 inches fall, while bitterly cold gale force winds will sweep across Britain creating blizzard-like conditions and plunging temperatures down to well below freezing.

Heavy rain sweeping across Northern Ireland will turn increasingly to snow with up to 12 inches across the hills of Down and Antrim, while on the east coast rain and sleet could cause localised flooding.

James Wilby, a forecaster for Meteogroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said: "It is really just nasty conditions across most of the UK.

"The snow will fall from the M4 northwards, quite lightly in the south but heavily in the north.

"Along with the heavy rain and flooding in the south-west, there will no doubt be a lot of disruption for the UK.

"The heavy rain, snow and strong winds will continue into the weekend, with the heavy snow spreading south to East Anglia and Bristol tomorrow.

"And I'm sorry to say that there is no sign of things getting any better next week, it's going to remain cold and bleak."

The Met Office has issued a number of severe weather warnings urging the public to be prepared for "severe disruption" to transport and energy services.

The Environment Agency has 18 flood alerts in place along the south-west coast warning of expected flooding, with a further 80 alerts issued to areas at risk.

Between 1.6 to 2.4 inches is set to fall over southern Devon and Cornwall today, and up to 4 inches on exposed southern slopes.

Last night Cornwall Council set up a designated control room to handle calls.

Spokesman Dave Owens said the county's fire and rescue service received more 50 calls, and eight properties had flooded.

He said: "The main problem still appears to be surface water flooding which is continuing to affect a number of areas across Cornwall."

There are reports of flooding across the west of the county, including around Newlyn and Penzance, as well as in Mevagissey in mid-Cornwall - a community still recovering from the impact of last year's torrential downpours.

Environment Agency spokesman Ben Johnstone said: "We strongly urge people to sign up to flood warnings on the Environment Agency website, keep a close eye on local weather forecasts and be prepared for possible flooding.

"We also ask that people stay safe and not try to wade or drive through any deep water."

Leeds Bradford International Airport has suspended all flights due to "adverse weather conditions".

The airport has told passengers: "We advise you contact your airline or tour operator and check the status of your flight before arriving at the airport."

The AA issued warnings to motorists that even short journeys could be difficult, and there could be a repeat of the scenes in southern England last week when hundreds of drivers were stranded in their cars overnight.

Darron Burness, the AA's head of special operations, said: "It's going to be a real witch's brew of driving wind, rain and snow, which will inevitably cause disruption on the roads.

"Drivers should be well prepared as even short journeys can quickly turn bad."

He warned of localised flooding, and urged drivers to stay out of flood water. He also said snow that settles could persist in the low temperatures, leading to icy patches.

"Wherever you're going, take plenty of warm layers, check the travel reports before heading out and stick to the main roads where possible," he said.

The Local Government Association said council gritting and ploughing teams would be out in force to try to ensure main roads remained passable where snow and freezing temperatures had been forecast.

Peter Box, chairman of the Local Government Association's economy and transport board, said hundreds of thousands of tonnes of salt had been spread this winter, but hundreds of thousands more tonnes were available in council depots and new deliveries were coming in.

And he said: "Council staff will be out and about over the next few days checking in on the people they know to be vulnerable and delivering hot meals and portable heaters, collecting prescriptions, defrosting pipes, fixing frozen boilers and making sure they have what they need."

But he also urged residents with elderly or vulnerable family or neighbours to check in on them to make sure they were coping with the latest freeze.

Sales of electric blankets at John Lewis have rocketed during this cold spell.

Chloe Harris, buyer for small electricals at John Lewis comments: “Not many of our customers have been able to escape the freezing temperatures and we have seen a 52 per cent rise in sales of electric blankets based on the same period last year.

"As consumers energy prices rise and temperatures drop, electric blankets are increasingly being seen as a good investment for people wanting that bit of extra warmth without heating the entire house.”

Loading Slideshow...
  • Spring weather March 22

    A white house surrounded by snow covered trees in Mold, North Wales, after snowfall fell throughout today.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A bus came off the road on the A875 near Killearn in Stirlingshire but nobody was injured in the incident.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A bus came off the road on the A875 near Killearn in Stirlingshire but nobody was injured in the incident.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A bus came off the road on the A875 near Killearn in Stirlingshire but nobody was injured in the incident.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Blizzard conditions are experienced at the scene of an accident where a bus came off the road on the A875 near Killearn in Stirlingshire but nobody was injured in the incident after snowfall.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A BT engineer works on a fallen phone line after the pole was knocked down near the village of Fintry in Stirlingshire after snowfall.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A BT engineer works on a fallen phone line after the pole was knocked down near the village of Fintry in Stirlingshire after snowfall.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A gritting vehicle waits to be pulled from a ditch near Kippen in Stirlingshire after snowfall.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A gritting vehicle waits to be pulled from a ditch near Kippen in Stirlingshire after snowfall.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Newly chopped trees near Cumbernauld covered in snow after snowfall.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Two spring lambs shelter from the snow alongside their mother in a field in Northop, North Wales.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Spring flowers surrounded by snow on a roundabout in Ruthin, North Wales.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A woman walks past two piles of snow as she shops in Mold, North Wales.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A white house surrounded by snow covered trees in Mold, North Wales, after snowfall fell throughout today.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Traffic flows through a snow shower on the A1 near Wetherby, West Yorkshire.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Two spring lambs shelter from the snow alongside their mother in a field in Northop, North Wales.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A car splashes through water in Shotton, North Wales, as drains struggled to cope with the amount of snowfall.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Two spring lambs shelter from the snow alongside their mother in a field in Northop, North Wales.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A woman makes her way through the snow covered All Saints Churchyard in Bramham, West Yorkshire.

  • Spring flowers surrounded by snow on a roundabout in Ruthin, North Wales....

    Spring flowers surrounded by snow on a roundabout in Ruthin, North Wales.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Snow ploughs clear the Carnlough to Ballymena road in Co Antrim after a heavy snowfall.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Snow ploughs clear the Carnlough to Ballymena road in Co Antrim after a heavy snowfall.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Snow covered daffodills in Gateacre Village, Liverpool as Britain faces a day of severe disruption as heavy snow, flooding and blizzard conditions blight the country.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Snow covered daffodils in Gateacre Village, Liverpool as Britain faces a day of severe disruption as heavy snow, flooding and blizzard conditions blight the country.

  • Spring weather March 22

    People struggle through the snow whilst walking their dogs in Hillsborough Park, Sheffield as Britain faces a day of severe disruption as heavy snow, flooding and blizzard conditions blight the country.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Cows huddle together in a field at Low Bradfield, near Sheffield following heavy snowfall in the area.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Motorists make their way through snow covered roads,on the Carnlough to Ballymena road in Co Antrim after sbnow ploughs cleared drifting snow.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Daffodils are covered in snow in Bramham, West Yorkshire.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A spring lamb shakes snow from its head as it stands alongside its mother in a field in Northop, North Wales.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A woman walks past two piles of snow as she shops in Mold, North Wales.

  • Soccer - FIFA World Cup 2014 Qualifying - Group F - Northern Ireland v Russia - Windsor Park

    Ground staff help clear snow away from Windsor Park prior to the FIFA World Cup 2014 Qualifier this evening.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A woman makes her way along a snow covered path in Follifoot, Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

  • Transport - Rail - Snow - Bewdley - 1996

    Severn Valley railway's LMS-design 2-6-0 exits the Bewdley tunnel. The already scenic route was given the additional attraction of snow after an overnight fall. The locomotive, built in the 1950's was used on branch and country lines but more recently played a starring role in the comedy series 'Oh Doctor Beeching', filmed at nearby Arley, for which she was re-christened 'Blossom'.

  • Weather - Winter - Snow - Goathland - 1998

    The scene on the North Yorkshire Moors as the Steam Railway at Goathland provided a spectacular winter landscape for passengers using their trains following snowfalls over the weekend.

  • Soccer - FIFA World Cup 2014 Qualifying - Group F - Northern Ireland v Russia - Windsor Park

    Ground staff help clear snow away from Windsor Park prior to the FIFA World Cup 2014 Qualifier this evening.

  • Spring flowers surrounded by snow on a roundabout in Ruthin, North Wales....

    Spring flowers surrounded by snow on a roundabout in Ruthin, North Wales.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Two spring lambs shelter from the snow alongside their mother in a field in Northop, North Wales.

  • Spring weather March 22

    A woman makes her way through the snow covered All Saints Churchyard in Bramham, West Yorkshire.

  • Spring weather March 22

    Sheep stand in a snow covered field near Follifoot, Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

  • BRITAIN-WEATHER

    Pedestrians walk through the snow in Belfast City centre in Northern Ireland, on March 22, 2013. Britain should be celebrating the start of spring but the kingdom was shivering Friday after heavy snowfall left tens of thousands of homes without power. Northern Ireland bore the brunt of the cold snap, caused by an area of low pressure moving eastwards off the Atlantic Ocean. AFP PHOTO / LIAM MCBURNEY (Photo credit should read LIAM MCBURNEY/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Snow And Rain Hit Britain In Coldest March For 50 Years

    HARROGATE, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 22: A snow covered golf course in Yorkshire on March 22, 2013 in Harrogate, United Kingdom. Heavy snow is causing disruption to transport and schools across the UK in the coldest March the country has seen for decades, with no sign of the warm spring weather that Britain enjoyed this time last year. Homes have been left without power in Northern Ireland, airports shut and flooding in parts of Devon and Cornwall. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

  • Snow And Rain Hit Britain In Coldest March For 50 Years

    HARROGATE, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 22: A man wearing shorts walks his dog as heavy snow falls over parts of Yorkshire as winter weather continues on March 22, 2013 in Harrogate, United Kingdom. Heavy snow is causing disruption to transport and schools across the UK in the coldest March the country has seen for decades, with no sign of the warm spring weather that Britain enjoyed this time last year. Homes have been left without power in Northern Ireland, airports shut and flooding in parts of Devon and Cornwall. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

  • BRITAIN-WEATHER

    Vehicles drive through drifting snow on the A6 road near the town of Buxton in north-west England, on March 22, 2013. Britain should be celebrating the start of spring but the kingdom was shivering Friday after heavy snowfall left tens of thousands of homes without power. AFP PHOTO / ANDREW YATES (Photo credit should read ANDREW YATES/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Snow And Rain Hit Britain In Coldest March For 50 Years

    LEEDS, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 22: Aircaft prepare to leave Leeds Bradford airport during a heavy snow storm on March 22, 2013 in Yorkshire, United Kingdom. Heavy snow is causing disruption to transport and schools across the UK in the coldest March the country has seen for decades, with no sign of the warm spring weather that Britain enjoyed this time last year. Homes have been left without power in Northern Ireland, airports shut and flooding in parts of Devon and Cornwall. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)s)

  • Snow And Rain Hit Britain In Coldest March For 50 Years

    LEEDS, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 22: Aircaft prepare to leave Leeds Bradford airport during a heavy snow storm on March 22, 2013 in Yorkshire, United Kingdom. Heavy snow is causing disruption to transport and schools across the UK in the coldest March the country has seen for decades, with no sign of the warm spring weather that Britain enjoyed this time last year. Homes have been left without power in Northern Ireland, airports shut and flooding in parts of Devon and Cornwall. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

  • Snow And Rain Hit Britain In Coldest March For 50 Years

    HARROGATE, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 22: A car that had crashed into a hedge during heavy snow is marked with police tape as snow continues to fall on March 22, 2013 in Harrogate, United Kingdom. Heavy snow is causing disruption to transport and schools across the UK in the coldest March the country has seen for decades, with no sign of the warm spring weather that Britain enjoyed this time last year. Homes have been left without power in Northern Ireland, airports shut and flooding in parts of Devon and Cornwall. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

  • Snow And Rain Hit Britain In Coldest March For 50 Years

    HARROGATE, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 22: Heavy snow falls over parts of Yorkshire as winter weather continues on March 22, 2013 in Harrogate, United Kingdom. Heavy snow is causing disruption to transport and schools across the UK in the coldest March the country has seen for decades, with no sign of the warm spring weather that Britain enjoyed this time last year. Homes have been left without power in Northern Ireland, airports shut and flooding in parts of Devon and Cornwall. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

  • Snow And Rain Hit Britain In Coldest March For 50 Years

    LEEDS, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 22: Aircaft prepare to leave Leeds Bradford airport during a heavy snow storm on March 22, 2013 in Yorkshire, United Kingdom. Heavy snow is causing disruption to transport and schools across the UK in the coldest March the country has seen for decades, with no sign of the warm spring weather that Britain enjoyed this time last year. Homes have been left without power in Northern Ireland, airports shut and flooding in parts of Devon and Cornwall. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

  • BRITAIN-WEATHER

    A tractor clears drifting snow from the A6 road near the town of Buxton in north-west England, on March 22, 2013. Britain should be celebrating the start of spring but the kingdom was shivering Friday after heavy snowfall left tens of thousands of homes without power. AFP PHOTO / ANDREW YATES (Photo credit should read ANDREW YATES/AFP/Getty Images)

  • BRITAIN-WEATHER

    Vehicles drive through drifting snow on the A6 road near the town of Buxton in north-west England, on March 22, 2013. Britain should be celebrating the start of spring but the kingdom was shivering Friday after heavy snowfall left tens of thousands of homes without power. AFP PHOTO / ANDREW YATES (Photo credit should read ANDREW YATES/AFP/Getty Images)

  • UKRAINE-WEATHER-SNOW-FALL

    Communal workers clean snow after heavy snow fell in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on March 22, 2013. AFP PHOTO/ YURIY DYACHYSHYN (Photo credit should read YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP/Getty Images)

Loading Slideshow...
  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    Water thrown up from a puddle at the side of a road in Brentwood, Essex, form icicles on a part of a roadside hedge as the UK starts to recover from the recent cold snap which brought travel chaos to parts of the UK.

  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    Water thrown up from a puddle at the side of a road in Brentwood, Essex, form icicles on a part of a roadside hedge as the UK starts to recover from the recent cold snap which brought travel chaos to parts of the UK.

  • Spring Weather - March 12th

    Commuters wait for trains in freezing conditions at Haywards Heath train station as large parts of the UK continue to experience winter weather conditions.

  • Spring Weather - March 12th

    A general view of the River Liffey in the wicklow mountains on the outskirts of Dublin as large parts of the UK and Ireland continue to experience winter weather conditions.

  • Spring Weather - March 12th

    Commuters wait for trains in freezing conditions at Haywards Heath train station as large parts of the UK continue to experience winter weather conditions.

  • Spring Weather - March 12th

    Icicles on the side of a road in South Derbyshire as large parts of the UK continue to experience winter weather conditions.

  • Spring Weather - March 12th

    Sheep seen in the snow covered wicklow mountains on the outskirts of Dublin as large parts of the UK and Ireland continue to experience winter weather conditions.

  • Spring Weather - March 12th

    A Lamb is seen in the snow covered wicklow mountains on the outskirts of Dublin as large parts of the UK and Ireland continue to experience winter weather conditions.

  • Spring Weather - March 12th

    Horses seen in the snow covered wicklow mountains on the outskirts of Dublin as large parts of the UK and Ireland continue to experience winter weather conditions.

  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    A general view of lorries parked on the M20 near Harrietsham, Kent, as operation stack remains in place on the motorway due to the continuing bad weather in nothern France.

  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    Pedestrians walking down the Strand in London battle against the cold weather.

  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    A general view of lorries parked on the M20 near Harrietsham, Kent, as operation stack remains in place on the motorway due to the continuing bad weather in nothern France.

  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    Chris Bettam cross-country skis at the Hole of Horcum on the North Yorkshire Moors as snow showers continue to fall over parts of the country.

  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    Gary Roberts and Steph Scattergood have a snowball fight at the Hole of Horcum on the North Yorkshire Moors as snow showers continue to fall over parts of the country.

  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    Gary Roberts and Steph Scattergood have a snowball fight at the Hole of Horcum on the North Yorkshire Moors as snow showers continue to fall over parts of the country.

  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    A gritter truck makes its way along the Pickering to Whitby road on the North Yorkshire Moors as snow showers continue to fall over parts of the country.

  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    Dark clouds on the horizon over a farm at the Hole of Horcum on the North Yorkshire Moors as snow showers continue to fall over parts of the country.

  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    Traffic makes its way along the Pickering to Whitby road on the North Yorkshire Moors as snow showers continue to fall over parts of the country.

  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    Traffic makes its way along the Pickering to Whitby road on the North Yorkshire Moors as snow showers continue to fall over parts of the country.

  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    A gritter truck makes its way along the Pickering to Whitby road on the North Yorkshire Moors as snow showers continue to fall over parts of the country.

  • Spring Weather - March 12th

    A snow boarder enjoys the glorious conditions at the Yad Moss ski slope in Alston, near Cumbria.

  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    Chris Bettam cross-country skis at the Hole of Horcum on the North Yorkshire Moors as snow showers continue to fall over parts of the country.

  • Winter Weather - March 13th

    Water thrown up from a puddle at the side of a road in Brentwood, Essex, form icicles on a part of a roadside hedge as the UK starts to recover from the recent cold snap which brought travel chaos to parts of the UK.

  • FRANCE-WEATHER-SNOW

    An excavator of the French army works to free coaches blocked by snow on March 13, 2013, on the D901 (secondary road 901) near Beaumont-Hague, northwestern France. More than 68,000 homes were without electricity in France and hundreds of people were trapped in their cars after a winter storm hit with heavy snow, officials and weather services said on March 12. Twenty-six regions in northwest and northern France were put on orange alert because of heavy snowfalls, which Meteo France said were 'remarkable for the season because of the expected quantity and length of time'. AFP PHOTO/ ALAIN JOCARD (Photo credit should read ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Big freeze causes chunnel gridlock

    File photo dated 12/03/13 of lorries queuing for the Channel Tunnel on the M20 near Folkestone. Unseasonable freezing weather and snowy conditions have continued to cause disruption with a huge backlog of freight traffic.