The last three months in east London have been sunnier than average – hard to believe as we move into a regime of easterlies that will bring showers and anticyclonic gloom.
With no sun and short days it is no surprise that many are probably already feeling short-changed in the solar stakes.
A blog by XMetman on a ‘grimness index’ got me thinking how London fairs in terms of sunshine, temperature and rain in any given winter season.
Using the same criteria, and assuming that most people welcome sunshine, it can be seen that since the least grim winter of 2007-08, the season, over the past 10 years, has been growing steadily worse.
The grimmest winter, considering statistics back to 1881, was, ironically, the 1978-79 ‘Winter of Discontent’ when, again ironically, ‘Sunny Jim’ Callaghan was in Downing Street as widespread strikes coincided with the coldest winter for 16 years. On looking at the Top 10 of grim winters it is striking how most coincide with depressing world events, the Great War, World War 2 and the Korean War!
The Tory ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ campaign was probably my first memory of a general election broadcast.
Sunshine was a dominant feature of January 2017 in east London thanks to a long-lasting anticyclone centred over the near continent that established a feed of stable, dry air.
It was a cold month, the mean temperature of 3.4C (1.8C below the 1981-2010 average) made it the coldest for seven years, marginally colder than the snowy January in 2013.
Though many days were dry it was also a wetter than average month with 71.5mm of precipitation recorded (134% of average) and the wettest for three years.
There were 73.8 hours of sunshine (147% of average) – the 10th equal sunniest January since 1797.
The wettest day was on the 11th /12th when rain and snow associated with a LP centre that dived south-east dumped 19.7mm. This turned to snow though by 9am only 0.5cm lay in my garden. The warmest day occurred on the 11th with 10.9C recorded. The coldest maxima occurred just before obs time on the 26th when 0.6C was reached, narrowly missing an ice day. The lowest temperature occurred in the early hours of the 21st when -6.7C was recorded, the coldest minimum since January 2013.
The sunniest days were on the 18th, 20th and 21st when eight hours of sunshine were recorded.
Snow fell on 4 days and lay on 1 day. Air frosts: 14, Ground frosts: 19
So what has February got in store. Models on the 1st suggest that after a stormy start the weather will settle down with high pressure re-establishing itself on the continent. Operational runs suggest the position of this high will again draw in very cold upper air, heralding another cold spell that this time could be more unstable with snow – thanks to the position of the anticyclone being further north than it was in January. There are also suggestions that a sudden stratospheric warming event currently underway may also disrupt the polar vortex which *could* lead to any cold around mid-month being prolonged. It is a big if, however, and it is impossible to know the final position of any anticyclone: resultant weather could be fairly cold and benign or severe and snowy.
My method of prediction for the month as a whole gives very little information because January was unusually wet for a cold month. After this weekend’s unsettled spell perhaps February will continue in the same vein as January: 1-2C colder than normal but predominantly dry.
So, to sum up, we’re looking at a mean of 4C, rainfall: 15mm, sunshine: 60hrs.
My forecast last month was poor: predicted mean 4.4C (result 3.4C). Rainfall: 55mm (result 71.5 mm). Sunshine: 39hrs (result 73.8hrs)
1st: Cloudy start with rain pushing in from 1.30pm. A precipitous fall in temp about 2.15pm.
2nd: Sunny all day with just a few cumulus. Cold and frosty overnight.
3rd: Sunny, hazy start – the cloud building to 10.30am. Afternoon and evening felt cold.
4th: Cloudy and mild start. Brightness increased through the day though colder air arrived around dusk.
5th: Sunny, frosty start with a few clouds from time to time. The frost persisted all day on the grass.
6th: Sunny and cold start, frost lifted at 11am to leave mild-feeling early afternoon. Cloud thickened with rain arriving just before 4pm and lasting a couple of hours. Temp increased through the night.
7th: Cloudy and mild start.
8th: Cloudy and very misty on road to High Beach. Some bright spells from 10.30am. Clouding in again in the afternoon but mild.
9th: Cloudy, damp start with rain spreading in at midday then sporadically into the afternoon. Clear spells overnight.
10th: Cloudy start with odd brightness near noon.
11th: Sunny sart with just a few cumulus, this cumulus increased from time to time.
12th: Cloudy and cooler start. Started spitting at 11am before main rain arrived at noon – then rained through the afternoon and temp dropped. Reports of snow in Hampshire at 1650z. Snow in Aldersbrook at 6pm which gave a covering of icy snow and slush which lasted through until 9am on grass and cars. Just over 50% of grass covered.
13th: Bright start, snow flurries spreading in at 9.30am with heavier burst at 10.10am – snow lasted till around noon then was just cloudy – no further accumulation. Cold overnight though too much breeze for air frost.
14th: Cloudy start with some drizzle at noon. Clearing afternoon with early ground frost before turning cloudy at 1am with rain in the early hours.
15th: Light rain to start and falling on and off until 3pm.
16th: Light rain to start which went on into the morning thanks to a conveyor belt of rain – the result of being on the boundary of two air masses.
17th: Bright start with cloud and light frost, the cloud clearing with cold front off the continent. Cold, crisp afternoon followed with frost soon after dark.
18th: Sunny, very cold start with jet contrails across the sky. Sunny all day thereafter with frost after dark – not as cold as previous night – minimum was at 9am previous day.
19th: Sunny start with a few cirrus around that made for a spectacular dawn. Temp warmed up quicker than previous day with frost lifting. Cold again overnight though agitation of the lower layers prevented temp falling further than 4.1C.
20th: Sunny, very cold start with frost.
21st: Sunny, very cold start with sunshine all day, Frost lingering all day in the shade – the ground now rock hard. Coldest night since January 2013.
22nd: Sunny, very cold start with heavy frost. The frost lingered all day in the shade. Turning misty at dusk with dense patches of freezing fog developing. Another moderate frost with a 18-06 low of -4.8C.
23rd: Foggy start with dense, freezing patches on Wanstead Flats. Thinner in the village though still noticeable. The fog was present into Rush Green.
24th: Misty start with remnants of thick fog patches seen on the Flats. Thereafter sunny and pleasant in the sunshine.
25th: Foggy start though some lifted but still left misty morning. Feeling cold as wind increased. Some flurries of snow at 8.30am.
26th: Cloudy and cold, feeling raw in the wind with flurries of snow that settled on pavements in Wanstead. Cold and raw through the day with odd clear interval – temp rose to 0.2C just before dusk so no ice day. Sky cleared overnight with frost before cloud rolled in with odd flake of snow.
27th: Bright but with cloud thickening at 9.30am with moderate shower, then brighter. Sharp shower at 1510 with <5mm hail and fell at 20mm/hr. Some spectacular cumulonimbus.
28th: Cloudy start though with some brightness until 11am.
29th: Cloudy, quiet weather all day.
30th: Cloudy, uninspiring day. Some light rain at 2am.
31st: Cloudy with rain looking likely. Rain arrived in evening and fell intermittently through the night and after dawn.
There were some notable weather tweets from around the UK.
It was also a month of extremes in Europe and elsewhere. Here are a few examples I tweeted throughout January.
I remember the January 1987 spell like it was yesterday. I’d arranged to stay with my aunt and uncle in a rural part of south Essex. The forecast by Ian McCaskill on the Friday night was for a cold weekend with possible snow flurries near the coast. ‘That’ll do’, I thought.
I caught a mid-morning train from Romford on the Saturday morning. As I disembarked at Rayleigh I was shocked by how cold it seemed to have turned. The wait at the bus stop was made worse as my uncle was delayed in picking me up; a black leather jacket I was wearing at the time was totally inadequate.
No matter, though, as I was soon warmed up on reaching my aunt’s house, helped further by hearty home cooking. Saturday was spent driving round rural Essex: my uncle knew a few farmers and was a keen rambler. We walked a circuit around Hanningfield reservoir.
I think we watched Back to the Future that night. By the time I went to bed I remember there was a dusting of snow on the ground. For some reason I kept waking up, each time looking outside to see the build-up of snow.
There was around four inches by morning and, after breakfast, I went with my uncle for a drive around the same rural spots as Saturday. The reservoir was beginning to ice over and I remember my uncle reading a Fahrenheit thermometer and saying that it was “seven degrees of frost”.
When I left Rayleigh that evening the snow was falling thick and fast and the train seemed to be travelling slower than usual. When it failed to move from Shenfield station after 10 minutes I knew something was up; the guard announced that the wheels had frozen to the tracks. Everyone disembarked and caught another. After leaving Shenfield I noticed that the snow cover gradually decreased, with just an icing-sugar like covering in Romford.
My dismay at having left a winter wonderland in Rayleigh disappeared on waking up on the Monday morning and seeing a good few inches had fallen.
BBC Breakfast presenters gravely told us how bad things were. The Isle of Sheppey was cut off and train services were severely affected – I didn’t go to school once that week because the toilets were frozen. For once the conditions, reflected in this footage from Thames News, matched the hype.
East London: Ben Bacarisse was living in Mile End in 1987. He said: “I was living on the 15th floor of a tower block at the time. The prolonged cold caused the main water riser into the block to freeze so no one in nearly 400 flats (there were a pair of blocks) had running
water. It turned out to be possible to tap into the larger street main
with a stand-pipe.
Presumably the constant use kept it running though
I’d have thought it would have to be removed at night. I don’t recall
how long that lasted but it was more than a couple of days.”
Home Counties: George Booth, who was living in Epping, Essex, at the time, explained how the weather affected him: “On the Monday (12/1/87) I accompanied a group of young scholars to the Science Museum. Despite the cold and snow they were happy to walk to the station (and they behaved themselves). It was a strange sight to see
Exhibition Road covered in that thick brownish frozen dust which occurs
when temperatures are presumably too low for treatment to be effective.
Not so good news for the school roof, however. It eventually had to be
replaced after a water tank/pipe burst after a thaw.”
George, who ran a weather station in Epping, added: “On 12/1/87 the maximum temperature in Epping was -8.0c and the minimum was -10.0C. The ‘snow depth gradient’ was very steep NW-SE with SE Essex/E London and N Kent receiving much greater falls than places like Epping. However, it was the severe frost that caused many
problems, particularly in older buildings.”
Dave Cornwell, a retired scientist, from Laindon, Essex, said: “I was working as an operational scientist at a sewage treatment plant in Rainham , Essex. (London Borough of Havering, (just east of London). I remember it well because for the first time anyone could remember the sewage was freezing on entering the works through the screening bars, bearing in mind that sewage is flowing underground and starting off quite warm, usually in winter arriving at about 10-12C.
“It was a major engineering problem because the heat was being conducted away by the metal bars and ice building up and blocking the flow. This could potentially have caused backing up of millions of gallons of raw sewage. A smart engineer made some improvised electrical heaters to fit on the bars and we hired massive tarpaulins to put on the north side to try and cut down the wind chill. It worked a bit till the weather turned. I remember taking the temperature at 9.30 am and seem to recall it was -9.0C.”
John Hall, from Cranleigh, Surrey, said: “We had a little snow on the Monday, I think it was, but it didn’t amount to much. We had to wait for overnight Tuesday/Wednesday for serious snow, but then it certainly made up for lost time. On
Wednesday morning, the gritters must have done a remarkable job on the
roads, as traffic was moving – if slowly – on the B road that runs
through Cranleigh, and I was able to make the 8-mile journey to
“But at the station, a railwayman was standing by the entrance
telling everyone: ‘There are no trains. We don’t know when there will be
any trains. We advise you to go home.’ I managed to get a bus back to
Cranleigh, by which time the snow had just about stopped.
“I didn’t measure the depth of the snow, but my subjective impression that Wednesday morning was that it was almost a foot (30 cm) deep. The wind wasn’t strong enough to cause too much drifting that day, but the following day it became pretty strong, and there was considerable drifting of the powdery snow, with some susceptible local roads becoming blocked. In this southern lowland region I can’t remember another such instance of this ‘delayed drifting’.”
Tudor Hughes, had the added altitude (165m) of Warlingham, Surrey, that made the cold spell even more memorable. “It was just about the most outstanding weather event for me. The 12th was a sunny day with a light NE’ly and a few inches of lying snow and the temperature just wouldn’t rise.
“After a min of -12°C it got up to -9.2°C (12-hr max) which I think is a COL record though obviously not a UK one. The 24-hr max was -8.9°C, agreeing with the reading from Coulsdon (Ian Currie).
“In the evening some smoky-looking stratus appeared and snow fell from cloud so thin that the moon was visible. It snowed intermittently for a further 2 days until the level depth was 39 cm. At the top of the North Downs (Tatsfield) the depth was about 3 times that.”
Tudor added: “The temperature was below -5°C for about 40 hours and below 0°C for eleven days. I whacked up the heating and opened the loft door. A burst pipe and frozen tank is the last thing you want.
“The extraordinary thing about January 12th was the lapse rate. This was no cold inversion – the higher you were the colder it was. I reckon the maximum at the top of the Downs (877 ft) was -10°C. There was some relatively warmer air above 700 mb but even so the 1000-500 mb thickness was 498 dam. Not quite the purple line but well inside the brown one.”
Unlike some cold spells the severe weather was not restricted to the SE corner of England.
The South West: Len Wood, from Wembury, southwest Devon, said: “Even here on the coast this was the coldest spell I experienced since moving here in 1983. We had four successive ice days and my record min of -10.1C was recorded which still stands.
“With quite a biting easterly wind it was hard to keep our bungalow warm.
Cold was coming up through the floors so I blocked the air bricks and we covered the floors with anything we had handy, old carpet, blankets…
“I remember another effect of the extreme cold was to make all the leaves turn black on the privet hedge down the length of our garden. They subsequently fell off. The hedge did recover the next summer though.”
There is a study of the heavy coastal snowfall of January 11-13 by W.S.Pike here.
Some more charts from Smartie on the Google Group Weather and Climate…
2m temperature and snow depth at 12 UTC 12 January 1987 from a downscaled simulation of 10-13 Jan 1987. The ERA Interim reanalysis was used as initial and boundary conditions. Contours of physical snow depth start at 2.5 cm every 2.5cm.
The main convergence zones appear quite well resolved at DX ~12km
This is the first downscaling grid. It has the latest ‘scale-aware’ convection scheme from WRF (Multi-scale Kain-Fritsch). The deep and shallow components should both be active (haven’t confirmed this).
Hourly output from this is used to initialise nested 6 and 2km grids. On the 6km grid the deep convection should be almost off and shallow convection still active.
On the 2km grid there is no Cu scheme ie. it’s ‘convection permitting’ in the jargon.
The plots can be compared with the letter by Lumb (Weather, 1988,, V43, 31).
Earthquakes in Italy and early season snow cover in Siberia have been well documented in 2016.
They were also mentioned by Luke Howard in his publication The Climate of London in 1810.
He also mentions winter thunderstorms over the Yuletide period, from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day – the amount of rain overflowing the Thames.
24th: Very windy night with heavy rain. 25th: Wind high all day with rain frequent lightning in the evening from SE. 26th: Wind very boisterous early in the morning day fine the rain of the last three or four days being impeded in its passage to the Thames by the spring tides overflowed the banks and filled the marshes.
Within two days of this wild and wet spell, complete with strong north-westerlies, the wind swung north and then north-easterly to usher in 1811 with a 12-day cold spell.
The conditions of the cold spell were not severe, the coldest night was -8C, it was a pretty standard cold spell for the time and one that the south-east used to experience with fair regularity in the early to mid 1980s.
Models currently show a (fairly) narrow chance of a stormy Christmas period. It would be interesting if it were followed with a cold spell in January – just like the ones we used to get in 1980s.
* The Booty website also contains the following on that notable month…
What is thought to be Britain’s strongest tornado occurred in December 1810. A category of “T8” (on a ten-point scale) occurred on the 14th at Old Portsmouth. The TORRO website says it: “tracked from Old Portsmouth to Southsea Common causing immense damage – although no deaths, it is believed. Some houses completely levelled and many others were so badly damaged that they had to be demolished; chimneys were blown down and the lead on a bank roof was ‘rolled up like a piece of canvas and blown from its situation’.”
Over the past few days there has been a lot of speculation on the possibility of a sudden stratospheric warming event happening. These events can contribute to unseasonably cold snaps in winter though exactly where their effects happen on the globe is impossible to forecast at small scale resolution.
In short it looks like the eastern US is most likely to see any severe cold weather from this episode – what seems to happen a lot in recent winters in the UK.
Far from being an expert on this there was a very good posting on the usenet forum uk.sci.weather by Stephen Davenport.
“A temporary wind reversal is likely in the upper stratosphere; for example, see ECMWF at http://www.geo.fu-berlin.de/en/met/ag/strat/produkte/winterdiagnostics/, and have a look at the off-the-chart EPV (although not so much poleward). However, I do not see this as a major SSW (by definition) and everything points to a recovering but weaker circumpolar vortex mid-month onwards.
“That opens the door to Arctic air pouring far southwards, and there’ll be snow chances at least as far south as the Tennessee Valley. Incidentally there is a risk of another Nor’easter around Feb 9th-10th.
“Downstream a mid-Atlantic ridge could build rather strongly from the subtropical high towards Greenland with slowed zonal flow but most likely surface low pressure developments eastern Atlantic / near the British Isles.
“If the long wave pattern shifts a little eastwards then the increased meridionality *could* see LP progression pull in temporary subsequent N-NW flows for the UK – a more likely route to short-lived cold shots than via any high latitude blocking in the medium range.
“I think that elsewhere people have got hung up on the stratospheric warming and, as so often, drawn excitable conclusions. Cold impacts are more likely for the eastern U.S. than Europe with a displaced rather than a split vortex; and the circumpolar vortex was so strong first half of winter it was always going to take a lot to break it down fully. And sure enough, as noted there should be a recovery after this “attack”. You can see the vortex distortion and latterly the beginnings of recovery in this rather nice animation of 10hPa potential vorticity:
During the opening months frequent cold blasts brought much wintry weather. Cold weather at the end of January turned severe during the second week of February.
In the early hours of the 7th heavy snow, driven by gale-force north-easterly winds, brought some of the worst winter weather this area has ever seen. Some 35mm of precipitation is recorded on the 8th – this would normally give at least one foot of level snow that could obviously be whipped up into huge drifts.
Luke Howard described the scene in his diary entry saying the abundance of snow “loaded the trees to their tops and weighed down the smaller shrubs to the ground.”
The snow and polar continental air also produced perfect conditions for a textbook radiative cooling night within two days of the snowfall. The minimum recorded on the morning of the 10th: -20.6C has not, as far as I can tell, been repeated since.
To put that into perspective the lowest minimum of the severe winter of 1963 for this area was -12.2C recorded at Greenwich on January 21st. The coldest night I have personally recorded was -10.3C on January 12th 1987.
Howard, who would have taken readings at his laboratory in Stratford and home in Tottenham, remarked on the rare occurrence of the cold and said that the thermometer had remained below 0F (-17.8C) for a number of hours: “an occasion that happened less than five times within a century – the last appearing to be 19 years previous.”
Howard’s theory of the day was that such extremes didn’t occur during long continued frosts but rather at an interval of one winter after such a season. He mentions the frost of 1794-95, which lasted 44 days, immediately before which the thermometer fell to -2F. The following year a low temperature of -6.5F was recorded. The year 1816 followed the cold winter of 1813/14 – the same pattern, so Howard was prepared for the night of February 9th 1816.
Modern climatologists tend to discount these old records by arguing that standard conditions set by the World Meteorological Organisation were not met. However, Howard backs up his findings with a very thorough explanation of how he went about measuring the record low temperature that followed a freezing day where the maximum thermometer didn’t rise above -6.7C.
“Early in the evening on trying the experiment of placing a wet finger on the iron railing it was found to adhere immediately and strongly to the iron. I exposed several thermometers in different situations.
“At 8 pm, a quicksilver thermometer with the bulb supported a little above the snow stood at 0F. At 11pm a spirit thermometer in the same position indicated -4F, the former which had a pretty large bulb had not sunk below -3F. At 7.30am the 10th a quicksilver and a spirit thermometer hung overnight about 8ft above the ground indicated respectively -3F and were evidently rising.
“The thermometer near the surface of the snow had fallen to 5F and probably lower, but at the usual height from the ground of my standard thermometer the temperature was at no time below -5F. The exposure is north and very open.”
Howard goes on to describe the following day:
“From 8am the thermometer continued to rise steadily at noon a temperature of 25F was pleasant by contrast to the feeling and it was easy to keep warm in walking without an upper coat. Even at 0F, however, the first impression of the air on the skin was not disagreeable; the dryness and stillness greatly tending to prevent that sudden abstraction of heat which is felt in moist and quickly flowing air.
“Early in the afternoon the wind changed all at once to SW some large cirri which had appeared all day passed to cirrocumulus and cirrostratus with obscurity to the south. I now confidently expected rain as had happened in former instances but was deceived and the thaw took place with a dry air for the most part and with several interruptions by night.
As often happens with severe cold snaps Howard reported on the 17th that the snow “was mostly gone but very thick ice remains on ponds”; a period of just over a week.
The cold snap saw the mean temperature for February 1816 over three degrees colder than average at 0.8C.
Such extreme temperatures are rare in the capital though not unheard of. I know that there have been cases of sub -20C readings in, for example, the Rickmansworth frost hollow and Ian Currie’s Chipstead Valley, but I have never seen anything so low in east London. Could it be repeated again? Possibly, but like 1816, the synoptics would have to be absolutely perfect for it to happen.
Every so often the UK experiences severe weather which shocks a population that is very used to our mostly benign climate.
Newspapers and media agencies, in an age where a culprit must be found to blame, are quick to connect every gale, flood and snowstorm with climate change. To say it is just ‘weather’ doesn’t compute with the average news editor.
A look back through archives from the 19th century reveal that this is not a new phenomenon. Though extreme weather events, including the heatwave of 1808 and widespread floods of 1811 and 1828, were always well documented, it wasn’t until the advent of reliable meteorological readings in the mid 1800s that scientists could analyse what was happening to the atmosphere with any authority. This, coupled with an explosion in literacy rates and the British fascination with the weather, helped build an appetite for news stories that went beyond covering each gale, flood and blizzard.
The year 1868 saw months of extreme weather that led newspapers on a mild and rain-sodden Christmas Eve to first ask the question: ‘Is our climate changing?’ The year had been the warmest for 34 years. The CET mean for 1868 was 10.4C, a figure nearly 1.3C above the 1831-1860 average. To put that into perspective 2014 was only 1C above the 1981-2010 average.
A review of weather in 1868 in the Falkirk Herald said the year had started very wet – a farming diary kept in Connaught, Co Mayo, said that January was so wet it was impossible to plough the land. The very wet weather lasted until the last week of March. In the Armagh record, all three months had well-above average rainfall, with the three-month total of 363 mm representing around 180 per cent of the long-term average.
By contrast the summer of 1868 was very hot and dry, with some of the highest temperatures ever recorded for the second half of July occurring in this year. There was a remarkable spell of hot days, with temperatures over 30C in England. For the south-east specifically, a maximum temperature above 32C was recorded in each of the months from May to September, and in July, the temperature exceeded 32C on 9 days. It was regarded for many years, until 1976 at least, as the longest (because of a lack of rainfall) and hottest in the instrumental record for England.
Although not accepted under modern methods, because of problems of comparison between Glaisher stands and Stevenson screens, the maximum temperature recorded on July 22nd, 1868 at Tonbridge, Kent, is still remarkable: 100.6F (38.1C). It is thought that this value, when compared with a standard Stevenson screen, is about 1.5C or 2C too high.
The subsequent ‘standard’ winter (December, January and February) became the warmest winter in the CET series which began in 1659, a record that still stands today.
The mild temperatures suggest a highly zonal, westerly pattern held sway from late November 1868 until at least February 1869. Snow was scarce in 1868 – with the only heavy falls on March 3rd and 8th and November restricted to northern England and Scotland.
The Falkirk Herald goes on to point out that winters, for the past 25 years, were mostly mild and wet – any bitter spells were short-lived. The piece cites Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selbourne which tells of a scene in January 1776 when “narrow roads were filled with snow to the tops of the hedges”, stopping road wagons and coaches in their tracks. White, regarded as England’s first ecologist, remarks that on a visit to London on the 22nd the metropolis was completely embedded in snow. A frost on the 27th lasted four days and was so intense that the Thames froze sufficiently enough for crowds to run about on the ice. More tellingly the snow remained on houses in the City for 26 days – these days we’re lucky if we see snow fall at all in the centre.
The paper professes that an increased occurrence of gales in mild winters were preferable to the ‘wave of death’ that accompanies bitter winters:
To the strong and hearty the frosts and snows of a bitter winter may seem genial and invigorating ; but they bring death with them to the weak, the ailing, and the aged.
It had been nine years since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species and many people were starting to turn away from the popular theory that many weather disasters were the work of God.
Less than 5 years later the question ‘Has our Climate Changed?’ was being asked again. An article in the Fife Herald on January 30th, 1873, reported that winters were milder and that summers were colder – less frost and snow and much more rain. The month had been mild, nearly 2C above the 1841-70 mean, but the rain was more notable: 80mm, 136% of the EWP average. The wet January was a continuation of the previous 12 months which had been the wettest on record: 1284.9mm, a record in the EWP series that remains to this day. There has been a wetter 12 month period just once – April 2000 to March 2001.
The wet conditions extended across Ireland too; in the Armagh record, the 12 months from February 1872 to January 1873 saw 1251 mm of rain fall, which represents about 150 per cent of the long term average for this station. A farming diary in Connaught, Co Mayo, stated that the persistent wet weather caused considerable distress through loss of harvests and difficulty of working the land.
By the time the question: “Is our climate changing?” was asked again, 16 years later, the climate had turned much colder with the return of snowy winters. Snow fell on 16 days in February 1889 – a storm on the 10th and 11th dumped 20-30cm of snow widely across England. Days later the Hull Daily Mail reported a statement by Professor Cleveland Abbe which said that the climate of the earth had not changed in 2,000 years.
The comments of Professor Abbe, today considered the father of the US National Weather Service, were drawn from a report in the US magazine, The Forum, and referred to temperature, rainfall, early and late frosts, freezing of rivers, periods of cold winters and hot summers, the opening of navigation and the temperature of the earth. He said:
The study of each and all of these phenomena has failed to establish that there has been any sensible change in the climate at any point of the earth’s surface during the past 2,000 years.
It is not clear if Professor Abbe’s words were taken out of context but it is interesting that such a well-respected scientist had the confidence to make such a statement.
The year 1888, part of a string of colder than average years that followed the huge Krakatoa volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1883, had seen other extreme events. In July ice is reported to have disrupted the fishing fleets around the Faroe Islands, implying cold conditions at these latitudes, probably extending to at least the Shetland Isles. It was a notably cold summer; a mean of 13.7C puts it just outside the ‘Top 10’ of coldest summers in the CET series. In London the summer was 1.8C cooler than average and rainfall was 139 per cent of normal for that period. It was also the dullest on record.
Two decades were to pass before the question: ‘Has our climate changed?’ appeared again following a fairly mild and wet winter. The Dundee Courier, on April 9th 1908, suggested that winters had grown milder but admitted there was no known cause. It said that the Thames had not frozen over for nearly 100 years but that this was partly caused by the fact that London Bridge was replaced 80 years previously, totally changing the tidal flow of the Thames.
Five months later a soggy Dublin Horse Show prompted the Wells Journal on September 10th to report on findings by the meteorologist Sir John Moore featured in the Geographic Section. He looked at Rev William Merle’s writings from the 14th century and observations made in Greenwich from 1774.
The facts prove that within the last six centuries at all events appreciable change has taken place in the climate of the British Isles. There is no scintilla of evidence to show that such change has taken place in the past or is likely to take place in the future.
On Boxing Day 1908 the Gloucestershire Echo cited an ancient weather report featured by Sir John Moore. In 1341 the month of April saw continuous frost from 6th to the 13th while the following autumn saw spring-like weather persist from September to December: “Our climate hasn’t changed in 600 years.” was the claim.
A poor summer in 1909 that began with the coldest June for over 230 years once again prompted the question ‘Is our climate changing?’ to be asked again by the Wells Journal on August 5th, 1909. The report says that the climate of Europe is growing colder – with periodic cold summers. It goes on to say that cold summers have happened in the past, mentioning the following years: 820 (cold and wet – most crops perish), 1033 and 1044 (cold and wet, caused famine), 1151 (rain falls in France continuously from end of June to middle of August), 1219, 1315, 1423 and 1512 (cold and wet summers) – in 1512 several people, accused of causing bad weather, were burned at the stake. Other years: 1596, 1639, 1641, 1667 – all had very cold Junes. The years 1809, 1812, 1813, 1816 all had cold summers.
Around the country there were some notable readings. On June 6th a high of just 10C was reached in Oxford and Bath. It was notably cold and wet with significant thunderstorms from 10th to the 12th and 20th to 28th. In London the Trooping the Colour ceremony on 24th was cancelled because of poor weather – one of only four occasions it has been cancelled due to weather since its inception in 1895. It was also a very dull month with no sunshine at all in London from June 2nd to 6th.
The year 1911 produced more remarkable weather and some violent thunderstorms. On May 31st, as the Titanic was being launched in an overcast Belfast, some 17 people were killed by lightning strikes across London and four horses died on Epsom downs on what was the day of the Derby. About 62mm of rain fell in 50 minutes on the Downs and there were 159 lightning strikes in 15 minutes around 5.30pm.
The summer season that year was the warmest for 65 years with many areas having less than half their normal rainfall. July was spectacularly sunny with an average of over 10 hours of bright sunshine over much of southern England: 384 hours of sunshine were recorded at Eastbourne and Hastings, East Sussex, during this month, and these are thought to be the highest sunshine totals recorded anywhere for July in the UK.
For the SE of England, with something like 300-350 hours of bright sunshine, this month (with July 2006) is regarded as the sunniest month on record. The month was also exceptionally dry and is still among the ‘Top 5’ dry Julys in the EWP series. August was also warm: the 9th produced the first occasion when 100°F was recorded in London.
During the autumn of 1911, the Shields Daily Gazette on Wednesday, October 25th, was reporting that ‘weather prophets’ were predicting that the UK was in for an exceptionally cold winter. The predictions were based purely on the fact that the country had not had a bad winter in more than 15 years, the last occasion on which the Thames was partly frozen over in the early part of 1895.
“If very cold winters come on an average once every twelve years, an old-fashioned winter is certainly overdue, for there is no ground for supposing that our climate is changing. But it is not the case that cold winters follow hot summers as an invariable rule. They sometimes do so, but the contrary would seem to be as often the case, for the hot summers of 1868 and 1887, to quote two examples, were followed by comparatively mild winters.
The law of averages is certainly on the side of a severe winter this year, but in the case of the weather it is never safe to argue from any law, and as the price of coal is going up, everyone must hope that this time, at all events, the Clerk of the Weather will be merciful.
In the event the Clerk was merciful and winter was mild.
This mild theme continued for a period prompting the Dundee Courier on Monday, January 2nd 1922 to ask: “Where are our winters? Is our climate changing?” The leading article goes on: “Here we are in January, and so far we have had no snow to speak of. Yes, our climate is changing, and has been for many years. We do not need weather records to tell us that. Our memories provide striking comparisons. In our boyhood days we greased our boots, tucked our trousers in, pulled the ear-flaps of our caps (you remember the style) down tight, wrapped mufflers around our necks (but not for fashion sake), then stood by the big fire to warm up before starting to plod our way through deep snow school.
“Who can forget the snowball battles after school; the hustle home for skates and to the ponds until nightfall; and then some? In those times we planned skating parties, and we were not disappointed. Do we need the records of thermometers and snow gauges to remind of the days of stinging cold and streets “piled high with snow ?
Anyone who says our climate is not changing has not been on this earth long enough to know. The severe winters left indelible marks upon our grandparents and great-grandparents, and the weather developed strong constitutions. They tell of successive winters of heavy snow and intense cold, beginning early in November and lasting until late in March. The snow often was piled up from four to six feet deep on the level.
“The seasons in those times were evidently well marked, for frequently made of their definite beginning and ending. Winter evidently was the season that concerned our ancestors most, for only slight mention made of any unusual summer.
In Britain the last few years winter temperatures have been higher than the average. The cold period has several times occurred in the autumn and May is showing a tendency to become the most pleasant month of the year, and so we are again reminded that the climate is changing; while statisticians say that average temperatures have remained practically the same for the last 600 years.
“A change in climate does not necessarily involve a change from the average mean temperature. It frequently happens that a warmer winter and a cooler summer or vice versa, or even a moderate winter and an unusually hot summer leave the average practically the same, while climatalogically very decided changes have taken place.”
Six years later a very poor summer prompted the Dundee Evening Telegraph on Tuesday, July 3rd 1928 to again ask the “eternal question”: Is Our Climate Changing? “With days of wind and rain that have made June and July days seem more like March and at times, even November, we are still awaiting our real summer. It is not uncommon to hear people speculating as to whether, after all, our seasons are not in process of changing.
“It is interesting, even if is not comforting, writes a correspondent, to know that people were speculating on exactly the same matter many years ago, and that in 1892 the author of Dundee and Dundonians Seventy Years Ago, when writing on Olden Rime Storms, Floods and Droughts, thought to ask: “Is our climate changing?”
“In a climate like ours,” says the writer of that interesting little book, the weather is a never-ending topic. Warmer and Colder. I have often heard old people speak of the weather changes that had taken place since their young days, as they expressed it. The summers, they said, were then much warmer, and, as an instance, they said that barley would be above the ground in forty-eight hours after sowing. It was then, they admitted, the last grain that was sown.
The summers then were so hot that the cows could only be put out to pasture in the early morning and evening, as they were driven mad by the ‘glegs’ or horse flies biting them. Then the winters were almost arctic in their severity and length. The seasons were also more sharply divided, approaching those of Russia and North America in their rapid seasonal transitions.
“I know that many about my own age have the same ideas of what has taken place in their time. A very hot or a very cold season or two may, as we get older, come to assume the general character of that far-off time, still I cannot but think that for a good many years past there has been more of a mixing of summer and winter than was the case fifty years ago, winter now being often found in the lap of spring, and summer-like weather about the new year.
“On a New Year’s Day – I can’t remember the date – I gathered blossom from our gooseberry bushes to show to a friend.”
On February 5th 1929 the newspapers were promoting a “new series of talks entitled ‘Is Our Climate Changing'”. The first speaker was a Mr Gordon Manley of the University of Durham. The paper said that the talks, in view of the widespread interest in weather conditions and forecasts, should prove of rather more than usual interest.
Manley later became probably the best known, most prolific and most expert on the climate of Britain of his generation. It took him 30 years to assemble the Central England Temperature (CET) series of monthly mean temperatures stretching back to 1659 – the longest standardised instrumental record available for anywhere in the world.
In the Dundee Courier on Wednesday, July 29, 1931, a report on a recent article “Has our climate changed?” had aroused considerable interest. David Grewar, the well known Glenisla authority, who has a long experience of the glens, gives his views below.
“Such variety of opinion exists as to whether or not our weather has changed. Some say that it has, others that it has not, and that any supposed change is due to the exaggerative effects of memory. These differences of opinion do not only exist among laymen, but among scientists as well.
Making all due allowance for changed habits and the tricks of memory, the older among us are undoubtedly correct when we say that the seasons now are different from our younger days. Then our winters were more severe, our summers better; now there’s more of a levelling up between the two.
“Mere meteorological records of temperature and precipitation cannot be taken as proof of what popularity constitutes severe winter. Suppose, for instance, that a heavy fall of snow is experienced in December, and is slightly augmented now and again for the next two months, and that never more than a few degrees of frost are registered, records would represent that as a mild winter; whereas reality it would be a severe one, because the ground would be deeply covered with snow for the whole winter. On the other hand, we may have a winter of severe frost, with little or no snow, claimed as a severe one.”
Eighteen months later and the Gloucester Citizen, on Friday, January 6th 1933, asked: “Is our climate changing?” The sub heading “January mends its manners” again enquired about whether the persistent succession of mild Januaries in the present century suggested something in the nature of a change in climate?
In the French Revolutionary calendar the division of the year from the middle of December to the middle of January was the month “Nivose” or “snowy”. The Anglo-Saxons called January “Wulfrnonath” because the weather was so intense that wolves, emboldened by hunger, left the forest and invaded the villages. The Dutch used to call January “Lauw-maand” or “frosty month”.
Today, in many parts of the country, particularly in the south and west, amateur gardeners have the delightful rare experience of seeing standard and rambler roses in full bloom, primroses blooming in rich clumps, stocks, polyanthus, indeed, show off flowers usually retarded by frost until the spring.
This changing character of “January freeze-the-pot-by-the-fire” is commented upon by a writer in the current issue Nature:
“January, the coldest month of the year in England, is proverbially associated with snow and ice. During the twentieth century, however, January has not lived up to its name but has been much more open, mild and stormy. with few prolonged frosts.
“At Greenwich the mean January temperature during the decade 1921-30 was 41.3Fs, more than two degrees above normal and probably five or six degrees higher than in some of the decades of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This persistent period of mild winters has extended over the whole of western and central Europe and is associated with a greater frequency of south-westerly winds and may almost be regarded as a change of climate.”
Within five years, in 1938, Guy Callender produced a paper that developed a theory that Earth temperatures had been rising in line with increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. It was the first time that somebody had made this connection: the birth of the science of man-made climate change.
In 1942, the Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, on Saturday, February 21, was discussing old weather rhymes.
“The speaker gave the following to us as among the most reliable weather verses:
“Livening red and morning grey, are surest signs of a very fine day.”
“When the dew is in the grass, rain will never come to pass.”
“There was a flicker of reason, he said, in the rhyme “rain before seven, fine before eleven”.
“Is our climate changing? Dealing with the question of our climate changing Mr Pettipher observed that people’s idea that the old-fashioned type of weather had gone forever, and that some such solution as the diversion of the Gulf Stream was the cause of the winter warmth, received a rude shock in the early months of 1939 and 1940, which, with the exception of 1929 were probably more severe than anything since 1895.
“Hot summers seemed to have been rather less frequent than in years past ; but our land was not really one of perpetual fog and gloom some novelists would have us believe, nor as bad as American thought when he wrote :
Dirty Days hath September, April. June and November ; from January up to May, the rain it raineth every day ; all the rest have thirty-one, without a blessed gleam of ; and if any of them had two and thirty they’d be just as wet and twice as dirty ! (Laughter.)
“In terms of Buckingham rainfall the speaker emphasized the necessary practical value, especially to sailors, fishermen, agriculturists and sportsmen, and now to our airmen, of weather study and manv observations with regard to rainfall described the Air Ministry’s organisation of 6,000 observers in the different parts of the country, of whom he was one, pointing out that the work had been described as of “national importance” because of its practical value.
“He emphasized that it was not a dry, hot summer that caused anxiety regarding water supplies; but a dry winter season. Buckingham’s average rainfall over a 20-year period was 25.43 inches. During the remarkable thunderstorm of May 19th when the roof of Buckingham Hospital was set alight by lightning 1.01 inches fell in thirty minutes, the percentage of 2.02 inches in the hour qualifying for a place in British Rainfall for a fall of unusual intensity.”
Much has been written about climate change in newspapers and scientific papers since the war. For a long period during the 1960s and 1970s the concern was about global cooling. But this changed in the 1990s when it became scientists identified that the Earth was beginning to warm.
A search of Wiley, the publisher shows a sharp increase in incidences of articles and papers that feature climate change. It is surprisingly just how big the increase has been since the beginning of the 1990s.
Looking at the last 10 years the Financial Times mention of the phrase ‘climate change’ is much more variable, perhaps reflecting the world financial crash of 2008 when concern was deflected away from the environment and on to the economy.
Concerns over climate change today have moved on immeasurably since those first lines of concern were vented in newspapers in 1868. But the socio-economic and geo-political arguments that are associated with the science deserve a blog all on their own. The long-range models that are still being developed, together with further study of ocean sediment, ice cores, tree rings etc illustrate that there is so much more we need to learn about this fascinating subject.
News editors would do well to take a moment the next time they report a hurricane, tornado, flood or snowstorm and realise that ‘freak’ events do happen and that it is not necessarily climate change that is the cause of that particular event in time.
As Mark Twain apparently said in 1887: “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.”
* Articles featured in the British Newspaper Archive were referenced in compiling this blog