Frost is a rare beast this year, even in the Wanstead Park frost hollow.
So far this year I’ve recorded just 82.5 hours where temperatures at 4ft (1.2m) were -0.1C or below. That’s just 37 per cent of what is recorded in an average year. And would suggest that frosts in December will be above average.
The lack of frost this year is even more remarkable given that the past seven years, especially the winters, have been so mild.
A closer look at the data shows that winter months are no guarantee of seeing temperatures fall below freezing. The record mild December 2015 and February 2014 are testament to that.
The fact that January 2017 looks the most remarkable month for frost reveals just how mild recent years have been.
Snow is ever present in the UK in most years though you have to look hard to find it in high summer.
A dedicated group of enthusiasts, led by Iain Cameron, chart and catalogue these snow patches – many of which are hidden or only seen as distant white dots during Scottish Highland walks.
Responding to an appeal in September I met up with Iain and other volunteers to chart the patches in Observatory Gully on Ben Nevis, the UK’s tallest mountain.
Our route up in the shadow of the magnificent north face of the Ben was a warm one; to our left a procession of ant-like figures were tracking the CMD arrete route to the summit, walkers making the most of the amazing weather.
Out of the sunshine it was noticeably colder in Observatory Gully; being north facing it sees very little of the sun even in mid June, slowing down the rate of melt of the snow which can be tens of feet thick by the end of the snowfall season. Being encased in snow for so long obviously has a chilling effect on the rock.
The walk up on the scree was hard work and I was surprised to see so many debris including parts of large parts of old galvanised chimney cowls, the legacy of the observatory that once sat proudly on top of the Ben. Not many people trek this way, being a bit of a cul-de-sac. To reach the 1,345m summit from here requires a 200m climb at the end.
As we edged higher the dot of snow grew ever larger and is surprisingly big by the time we reached it, Iain was surprised how hard the snow was. From Iain’s reports, published in the Royal Meteorological Society’s Weather magazine, I’d been fascinated by the images of the patches with naturally carved tunnels underneath them; the light inside the ‘cave’ has a gorgeous blue hue to it.
It was at this moment that I realised that this was a large part of the draw of tracking these patches; a fascination with snow in an area where the odds of it existing all year round seem to be forever diminishing.
Seasons of melt and snowfall
Snow has only vanished entirely in Scotland six times. Three of these occasions were in 2003, 2006 and 2017.
Mean temperature statistics from Cairngorm Summit show just how much the seasons can vary. Of course mean temperature is just one variable that affects snow survival rates. For example the Western Highlands saw huge amounts of snow fall in February and March above 300m, a factor that would have helped snow survive. Though the most recent melt season was 0.4C cooler than 2019 there was probably a far greater volume of snow.
* Because of the unreliable nature of mountain-top records the Met Office data for Cairngorm Summit has some large gaps, it is only the last 5 years that have complete records . I discounted any years that were missing more than 5% of data.
Traditional grass minimum thermometers are expensive. And delicate. Over the years I’ve lost a few of these spirit-filled devices thanks to curious foxes and other wildlife.
But using a £20 datalogger off eBay – units that are used for cold chain supply – and junk found in the garden I’ve found a solution.
As well as the logger and probe you’ll need:
Access to a PC
An old pickle jar with lid, preferably with a wide neck.
1.6m garden cane, cut into 8x 20cm lengths.
Thin garden wire.
Once you decide where to place the device (a part of lawn with limited traffic) dig a hole deep enough so just the very top is exposed.
Drill a small hole (big enough for the wire to pass through and the probe to fit snugly) into the top 2cm of each cane before carefully hammering each length into the surrounding turf, leaving 10cm exposed. The last length- that will host the probe – should go in the centre.
Drill a small hole in the lid that is just big enough for the probe to pass through.
You are now ready to place the datalogger into the jar to start recording.
First you’ll need to set up the device on your PC. Programs to do this are available to download.
The devices can hold up to 16,000 records. I set mine to 1 minute intervals, allowing for a continuous 11 days of records.
The enclosure is more to stop any foot traffic kicking over and damaging the probe. If wildlife proves to be a problem there is an option of running a very-wide gauge grill over the top.
The synoptic pattern on Sunday, April 5th, was very similar to the pattern on Tuesday, April 5th 1892.
With so few planes in the sky because of the coronavirus lockdown it offered an ideal opportunity to compare temperatures and sunshine totals between now and then.
Sunday dawned sunny and clear and stayed that way until dusk, some 11 hours of sunshine recorded, exactly the same as 1892!
The temperature in Wanstead reached 22.3C, 0.9C cooler than what was recorded at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in 1892. This maximum was reached after an overnight minima of 5.3C, the same as the 41.5F recorded at Greenwich all those years ago.
Looking further afield, and at the spell over 3 days…
Last November was on the cold side prompting me to investigate whether we were about to record a third month in a row below average. December turned out to be mild and wet, the lack of snow especially stark in Scotland.
The findings of that study showed that any sustained period of colder than average months was more likely to happen during months of March, April and May, nothing unusual there, especially considering H.H Lamb’s weather types.
I decided to scrutinise further all the colder than average months in this area, considering the 1981-2010 average, back to 1981. This gave the below results.
The dataset covers 399 months, of which 200 were colder than average.
The overall picture shows that negative anomalies are becoming more and more rare, though with notable exceptions being March 2013, December 2010 and January 2010.
The only month that has showed any sort of consistent general decrease in negative anomaly is November.
*For good snowfall at this station needs a negative anomaly of 2C during the months of November, December, January and February.
For those interested my winter forecast this year was way out. A prediction of a mean of 4.7C was 2.3C too low. The chief culprit for the 7th mildest winter back to 1797 was most probably the strong polar vortex which has often been at record strength over the past three months.
Rainfall prediction was also over 100mm too low. The wettest winter for 25 years with 248.1mm recorded places it 13th in wettest winters. The only crumb of comfort I can take is that the stats indicated an uptick in precipitation in February! The 90.8mm recorded made it the wettest February for 10 years, just short of 2010. Before that you have to go back to 1951 to find a wetter February. It places 9th in wettest Februaries since 1797.
Over the past months I have looked into the method of seasonal prediction and found some interesting results. For example, the winter of 1989/90 – a winter that was very similar to this one – led to a prediction that was 2.7C too low. Similarly the winter of 2013/14 was predicted 2C too low.
Rainfall looks to be far more random. Though it is obvious that we are now in a wetter than average spell experience shows that it is impossible to tell how long this will last.
Pattern matching and singuarities can be helpful in long distance forecasting. The spanner in the works, however, can be a sharply positive or negative ENSO (El Nino / La Nina) or, as in this year, a very strong polar vortex.
Damage from Storm Ciara was a lot less notable than further north though the relentless wind saw three records broken locally. Though the gusts were nothing like the St Jude storm in October 2013 the sustained wind blew at its greatest 1, 2 and 3-day rate since this particular automatic station was reset in November 2012.
Over the 3 days the wind direction was locked in a south-westerly, from 199 to 203 degrees.
In my search for some winter weather a tweet by Amy H Butler about dynamic final warmings piqued my interest.
According to the atmospheric scientist a winter where there was no major disruptions of the polar vortex (SSW) we are more likely to see a dynamic early final warming. A table published by Wiley shows the final warming dates.
So what could this mean for the weather in the London area? Considering all the above years with no SSW gives an average date of April 19th for a dynamic final warming.
I then looked at the TMax anomaly for those years for 60 days following a DFW and came up with the following graph.
The results suggest temperatures in April will be heading down in the final week for a cold end. The average to cool theme continues into May before temperatures lift in the final week for a warm end, with anomalies up to 5C above average. June, however, looks shocking with temperatures nearly 6C below average by the 16th.
This winter has so far been very similar in type to 1990. The dynamic final warming that year was among the latest in the list and led to a cool and dull June with anomalies in the second week nearly 7C below average!