Ask a dozen people what they think is a heatwave in this country and you’ll probably get 12 different answers.
The UK press is always keen to tell us that a ‘heatwave is on the way’ – even if it is March and the heatwave in question brings temperatures no greater than the high teens Celsius.
Although in the UK there is no official definition of a heatwave the World Meteorological Organization description is “when the daily maximum temperature on more than five consecutive days exceeds the average maximum temperature by 5 °C, the normal period being 1961-1990”. In other words that March heatwave would see the thermometer peak higher than 15.3C five days in a row. Pleasant enough – but no big deal.
The Met Office, working with the Department of Health, provides a ‘Heat-Health Watch System’ for England which is triggered when a threshold temperature in the South East is 31 °C by day and 16 °C overnight for at least two consecutive days.
I have vague memories of the weeks of sunshine in 1976 but the hot spells that stick in my mind the most are August 1990, when the UK temperature record was set in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, and August 2003 when an 8-day hot spell saw the all-time UK temperature record broken when 38.5C was reached at Brogdale, near Faversham, Kent.
Last July, when compared with the previous summers, saw some of the best summer weather since 2006. But where does last year compare with the good summers of 2003, 1995, 1990 and 1976? I decided to have a look back at the daily records for this area which stretch back to 1959.
I have drawn up a list of all days back to 1959 that have an average mean daily temperature of 23.5C or higher. This shows that there has been 93 such days. However, to qualify for the Met Office’s Heat-Health Watch System – ie two days like this in a row the list narrows. To make my job easier, I have narrowed the list further to 3 consecutive days where the mean has been 23.5C or higher. Though I loathe really hot weather in my experience I can put up with it for a couple of days. It is only when it gets to the third day of hot, sleepless nights that it starts becoming unbearable.
In terms of intensity and hours of sunshine, 2003 comes out on top. Though many people will argue that 1976 is more impressive -that summer, which comes in second, only produced two spells that satisfy my criteria. The first heatwave saw temperatures soar above 31C for six consecutive days from June 23. The start of the second, on July 3, saw Bjorn Borg win the first of five Wimbledon mens’ titles as he prevailed over Ilie Nastase in 35C heat.
The summer of 1995, which saw my driest-ever August with just 0.7mm of rainfall all month, comes in 3rd, with six days of mean temperatures of 23.5C or higher.
Looking at the data another way, ranking the average total daily mean temperature of each spell, sees 2003 again come out 1st, with August 1990 and July 1983, 2nd and 3rd. Looking back through history it is not really surprising that 2003 comes out on top. While it was hot in London the heatwave across the Channel contributed to the death of over 70,000 people throughout Europe, France being the most affected.