A few years ago I devised a winter index to try to decipher how modern winters ranked against legendary seasons, such as 1947 and 1963.
With the media hyping conditions last week, which were severe in many parts of the country, it is very difficult for many to gauge just how conditions compare with previous winters.
My findings show that this winter so far stands 27th. It is possible that further snowfall that results in lying snow at 9am between now and April will boost the position higher though, given recent years, this would seem unlikely.
Last week’s cold spell, while containing some impressive statistics, is put into perspective when it is compared with other severe spells since 1960. A decent cold spell but no record breaker in the form of a 1962/63.
Perhaps it is the advent of social media, the plethora of constant updates of the latest feet-deep snowdrifts and instant tales of heroism in the face of icy adversity, that has made this cold spell seem far more severe than it actually was in the minds of many; February / March 2018 was the first truly social media-driven cold spell.
Sections of the tabloid media have been going into overdrive these past couple of weeks with tales that the UK will soon be in the grip of an Arctic freeze – one headline in the Daily Express boasted that parts of the UK were in for FOUR MONTHS OF SNOW.
These stories are nothing new though they seem to be published earlier and earlier in the autumn. By the time we reach November – once the traditional time when winter forecasts started appearing – the tabloids have already turned their attentions to spring. Much of it is just ‘clickbait’ – a means for publishers to prove their stories are being read to keep their advertisers happy, a symptom of an industry in financial dire straits.
There will be snow somewhere in the UK during the next five months but predicting heavy snowfall in a given area, such as London, is impossible. But given the outrageous claims at such a long way from the start of the season on December 1st I decided to have a look to see if there is anything wintry on the horizon.
I started by comparing a range of historic datasets, including quasi-biennial oscillation (QBO) and el niño–southern oscillation (ENSO), against monthly mean temperature and rainfall anomalies. Because ENSO data only goes back to 1950 the findings are obviously far more restricted than my winter forecast method which uses local data going back to 1797.
The results of my data trawl are underwhelming. The best fit years were as follows:
For anyone who likes snow the above is not encouraging, however, given the past year which has seen several daily and monthly records shattered, including a record warm December, who’s to say that recent warm temperatures will suddenly swing the other way.
The above table would also suggest that the coming winter will be colder and snowier than the previous three – but that gives little away given how mild the past three winters have been.
A study of mean temperature anomalies in London since 1950 suggest that sudden swings, both positive and negative, are becoming more likely. Last month was the fifth month in a row that I recorded a positive anomaly – the longer this goes on the more likely it is the mean could turn negative – though bear in mind that I have recorded 12 months in a row of positive anomalies, from February 2011 until January 2012.
Current weather also suggests that something maybe afoot with the earliest establishment of a strong anticyclone over Norway (the fabled Scandinavian high) since 1881! This weather pattern gives the south-east its best chance of snow with the feed of cold air often coming all the way from Siberia. Time and again, however, I’ve seen these patterns break down in November just as everyone starts talking about an imminent severe winter. There is more than an element of truth to the saying:
Ice in November to bear a duck, rest of winter will be slush and muck
In conclusion, while the early figures look bleak for snow in the low-lying south-east, it is still far too early to tell if the coming winter will be mild or cold.
Before I’m accused of going all Daily Express the following is based on winter statistics for the London area and other variables rather than the latest expert hopecast.
Even before looking at the data in depth the chart below shows that a warmer than average summer is more likely after a mild winter. The winter just gone was the third mildest in a record going back to 1797.
There are some real corkers in that list, including 1995 when this area recorded the driest August on record. Other notable summers included 1990 – England in the semi-finals of the World Cup and another notably fine August: the then hottest UK temperature was set that year when a maximum of 37.1C was recorded at Cheltenham – a record that lasted until 2003. The year 1989 also stands out with a notably sunny summer.
So far, so good. But what about rainfall? Some 145mm of rain fell this winter – pretty much on the nose average for this region. Combining warm winters with similarly average rainfall gives the following list.
Though some years have disappeared there are still some decent summers, and notably sunny too. The year 1975 stands out as does the sunniest summer on record, 1911! Both were also very dry summers.
Altough the teleconnection with El Nino is tentative in our part of the world the winter seemed to follow the pattern of most positive ENSO episodes, so it is worth having a look to see where the data goes. The latest forecast by NOAA suggests:
A transition to ENSO-neutral is likely during late Northern Hemisphere spring or early summer 2016, with a possible transition to La Niña conditions during the fall.*
If the forecast goes to plan the second ‘rainfall list’ would narrow further:
Viewed by graph reveals that ENSO values of all the years decreased over the course of the year. Series 1 is 1998, series 2 is 1983 etc.
In conclusion, the results would suggest that there is a 66% chance of a decent summer with below average rainfall and above average sunshine. In terms of details June 1st is still a very long off in meteorological terms – so whether it includes any heatwaves that would put it my premier league of hot spells is anyone’s guess at this range.
If it’s anything like 1959, 1975, 1983 or 1998, however, I think most folk will be happy.
*The above contradicts some forecasts which suggest a continuation of the general pattern that persisted during the winter: warm SSTs in the Atlantic / warm water south of the Grand Banks were largely responsible for the cyclonic westerly type of weather that caused the mild weather. In summer this would cause changeable weather rather than long spells of settled weather.
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
The media are always keen to say ‘a heatwave is on the way’ when it is more likely to just be a short spell of fine weather with temperatures a few degrees above average.
Forecasts of 30C and above see editors up and down the land reaching for their stock pics of office workers and kids enjoying ice creams in parks.
‘Hotter than the Costas’ and other hackeneyed headlines are wheeled out as photos of scantily-clad women frolicking in the sea at Brighton illustrate this amazing fact – the more ubiquitous shirtless lorry drivers on the capital’s roads never seem to make the final editions.
So how do you quantify a heatwave? Even in an average year the UK normally sees at least one spell of very warm weather that can often feel much warmer than it actually is.
Looking at data for the London area stretching back to the early 1800s there has been plenty of hot spells, including the summer of 1808 where birds reportedly ‘dropped out of the sky’ from heat exhaustion.
The term ‘heatwave’ does not appear in any publication in the British Newspaper Archive until 1867. The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser on May 11th 1867 features a letter from Mr R.H. Allnatt. Writing from the British Hotel, Jersey, he states that “…the atmosphere became most oppressive. A heat-wave seems to have passed over the island, and from noon till sunset the thermometer stood in shade at 90 deg.”
The World Meteorological Organization’s description of a heatwave 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″. Though it has no official definition the UK 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.
A mean daily temperature of 23.5°C or higher has been achieved in this area on 199 days since 1852. To qualify for the Met Office’s Heat-Health Watch System the list, which goes back 163 years, narrows. However, to make my job easier, I have narrowed the list further to 3 consecutive days where the mean has been 23.5°C 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.
The first heatwave that fits my parameters, and ranks 7th in the heatwave premier league, began on August 13th 1876. Obviously in those days news would have taken a while to filter through. On the front page but tucked away at the bottom of the far right column of Reynolds’s Newspaper on August 20th a report talked on “excessive heat in Norfolk”:
“The weather has been intensely hot in Norfolk, and two fatal cases of sunstroke are reported from Blofield. A similar casualty occurred at Thorndon. A spark from a Great Eastern Railway engine has fired a barley field near Wherstead, Suffolk, in consequence of the extreme drought. The damage done is estimated at £300.”
A report on the “Glorious Twelfth” in the London Daily News on Monday 14th says:
“Not a cloud obscured the burning rays of the sun, and in the middle hours of the day moving about on the moor was not unattended with danger.” The weather was the complete opposite of the previous two years where “rain fell so continuously that only the keenest of the keen ventured abroad”.
It would be another 26 years before Greenwich would see another heatwave of the same magnitude. Tucked away on page 16 of Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper on Sunday 20th August 1893 a national round-up column spoke of ‘The Excessive Heat’ of the past week of that heatwave which ranks 11th in the league of heatwaves.
“A farmer, named Calvert, of Barlow, died of sunstroke on Tuesday whilst engaged in harvest work. A man named George Wight fell down in the street at Birmingham on Tuesday, and was taken to the hospital, where it was stated that he was suffering from sunstroke. The intense heat had a remarkable effect on the temperature of the sea in the Channel. A Sandwich correspondent said the water was the warmest it had been for 25 years.”
Several cases of sunstroke were recorded among soldiers from Plymouth Garrison. A regiment from West Riding were ordered off parade while some regiments took the unprecedented step of parading in shirtsleeves. An engine-driver, when running the express into Stoke station, became seriously ill and died directly after his admission to hospital. His death is attributed to the intense heat. Harvesters in Ashford, Kent, also downed tools after a fatality and several cases of sunstroke.
National newspapers of the day took a broader view of proceedings. The Daily Telegraph‘s assumption on the cause of the heatwave and prognosis of conditions was actually better than it is today.
“Not more than twice or thrice in the present century probably has heat as intense and persistent as that now registered been experienced in England. Since Saturday, when announced the formation of an anticyclone over the British islands, there has been a nearly constant and slowly progressive increase of temperature, until yesterday the maximum thermometric reading of the year so far was attained, 90 degrees in the shade being recorded at the Meteorological Office, Westminster.”
The Times on the same day remarked on how people were dealing with the intense heat:
“Such is the force of habit that the social mechanism still keeps working, though nobody really cares for anything except the heat. In the shops, in the Stock Exchange, even in Parliament, people meet and go through the form of doing business, but their langour tells its own story — that the sun has been too much for them.”
The paper describes a “great thunderstorm that had kept everyone in the south of England awake a week earlier” that was assumed to have been the end of a hot summer. But the heat built again.
“Sunday was one of the most exhausting days in human memory; and Tuesday and yesterday, at all events in London, were days to be remembered and quoted. Nothing more like a Italian scirocco has ever been felt here than the west wind which blew at midday yesterday. Very scientific thermometers, indeed, pretend that the heat was nothing exceptional, but the skin, the brain, and the temper of the average man told a different story.”
It would appear that the return of the heatwave took forecasters by surprise and the paper continues on with a familiar ‘why weren’t we warned’ tone:
“And the worst was that the forecast, to which our excellent Meteorological Office has taught us to look with so much confidence, promised quite other things. It spoke of weather unsettled, thundery, and showery later,” and in the north it promised ” westerly and varying breezes; changeable, showery, thundery, cooler. “What tricks were the barometers playing ? Was Ben Nevis having its little joke, or was the office itself suffering from sunstroke?”
The Daily Chronicle turned its editorial attentions to the “alarming” effects the heat was having on peoples’ attire
“The social effects began to operate at an early stage at Westminster, on temper as well on habiliments. They have now penetrated that last refuge of conventional respectability, the City, where the chimney-pot de rigueur has been dethroned by the straw of comfort, and the waistcoat has actually disappeared before the coloured silk scarf.”
The paper reports of people falling ill with fever in the heat, possibly caused by water supply. While the Thames, thanks to reforms by the County Council, was not smelling Glaswegians close to the Clyde were not so fortunate, the river being “overpoweringly odorous all the summer”.
“We must grin and bear it, as may. We shall grumble when the temperature falls, pretty much as we are doing now. For, Macanlay somewhere says, man is never satisfied with what he has, but is always straining after what he has not. And this is particularly true of Britons and their weather.”
Little is written of the 17th ranked 1906 heatwave that ran from August 31st to September 2nd though a diary note on page 3 of the Portsmouth Evening News on Thursday 6th September said the effect of the heat proved decidedly detrimental to education in Portsmouth. It reports:
“Not that the attendance has fallen off to any appreciable extent as result of the very trying weather, but its effect has been very marked, nevertheless, as the youngsters have proved very heavy and slack, with the result that the lot has been decidedly trying.”
The glorious summer of 1911, surprisingly, did not produce a spell that would satisfy my heatwave criteria.
The season, which produced hot weather throughout July and August, is worthy of mention, however, because August 9th saw the first occasion 100°F was recorded in London. Considering the magnitude of this milestone the media of the day seemed reluctant to go overboard with the coverage, simply reporting the facts. The day after the hottest day ever the Dundee Evening Post had some advice on attire for hot weather, including a reported sighting of Keir Hardie in a “duck suit”.
By 1923, a heatwave that placed 14th, reports were going beyond records of temperature and heat-related deaths. On July 16th a reader of the Gloucester Citizen was bemoaning the fact that visitors to London were being subjected to “heatwave profiteering”.
Ice was in short supply and only available in restaurants and cafes and the price of fruit and salad had risen “beyond reason”. The author writes:
“A Fleet Street shop, for example, lemons have suddenly risen from a modest penny to a more formidable threepence, and the explanation is: “There has been an eruption at Etna, you know”. “To point out that the present stock of lemons was received long before Etna began to make its dangerous influences felt is merely to invite a shrug of the shoulders and gesture indicating “take it or leave it.”
The London Letter column in the Hull Daily Mail on Friday 13th July mentions MP’s braving the stifling heat to hear Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s statement on European policy, and also “London The Boil”.
“The heat wave continues to keep in its fiery grip. It absolutely dominates the daily lives of our seven million population, whose habits are rapidly approximating to those much nearer the equator. Hyde Park ladies fashionably attired may be seen sitting under sunshades beneath the shadiest trees in their stockinged feet. Their shoes rest beside them on the parched grass.”
“In Fleet Street there has been a long queue, as nondescript as an old-time butter queue during the war ration period, outside a shop where ice cream wafers are sold at the rate of about two hundred a minute. Men are wearing white suits, waistcoats have vanished, straw hats are at a premium. Most of the licensed bars are doing little more than pussyfoot trade in long iced teetotal drinks. An actor appearing in SoThis is London, says that he gets home half-an-hour earlier nowadays. Though the theatre is quite well filled, the audience is too hot to applaud. So the show goes slick through.”
The column, written decades before the advent of air conditioned comfort became the norm, also gives advice on where to keep cool in the capital. Previous favourites had included the cold-storage warehouses along the riverside at Blackfriars Bridge, the Monument and Westminster’s “Byzantine” tower.
“I am quite certain the coolest place in London is in a boat under the stone bridge that spans the Serpentine. Scores of overheated Londoners seek these cool arches. There, if you can crush in, you may smoke a cigarette, in almost too chilly comfort, while London boils just outside.”
The heatwave of August 27th – 29th 1930, which ranks 15th,produced another interesting ‘London Letter’ column in the Portsmouth Evening News about too-hot cabs and heatwave profiteering: a greengrocer raising the price of lemons from 1d to 13d, despite there being crates available in storerooms!
Two years later and newspapers were reporting the ‘hottest day for a generation’. The heatwave of August 18th – 20th August 1932 saw the temperature reach 99°F (37.2°C). This heatwave ranks 9th.
“Tragedies attributable to the heatwave were reported from all parts the kingdom yesterday. From the provinces 14 heat deaths were notified. Three cases of suicide which the Paddington coroner said were attributable to the effects of the intense heat and ill health were subjects of inquests Paddington yesterday afternoon.”
The Leicester Chronicle reported cases of heat exhaustion and the curious sight of people carrying home butter in jugs while the 7.25pm and 7.30pm express trains from King’s Cross to the Western Highlands had shower baths installed in sleeping cars to help passengers cope with the heat.
The heatwave of August 6th – August 8th 1947, which ranks 18th, was sparsely reported save for the usual heat stroke casualty stories and the fact that Cheltenham recorded 11 hours of sunshine on one sweltering day.
By 1948 signs of a move away from straight reporting of heatwaves were beginning to appear. An Hour in the Heatwave, a report taken during the hot spell of July 28th – 30th, ranked 12th, was published in the Essex Newsman.
The reporter, Gilbert Saunders, gave a simple but highly readable account of people going about their daily life in the heat.
“In the stadium The other side of the river, where Chelmsford have their stadium, Ted Boxall, private builder, was getting on with a job that he started on Wednesday and hopes to finish by today. He is making a surround and small archway for the counter over which cups of tea are passed to directors and guests in the board room under the grandstand. Ted (who asked : “You’re not mistaking me for Mr. Rowe, are you?”) was surrounded with litter of Essex boarding and sawdust. He paused to wipe a hot brow, explained that he does “lots of odd jobs” for the club. Ted gets a hand from the players when its needed. Earlier this week he finished off two sets of concrete steps, one each side of the grandstand, so that fans will be able to get on the raised ground without having to scramble up the sides of a small mountain of ash and clinkers.”
“On the Corner At London Road corner, his face red from the heat but bearing the everpresent grin, Special Constable Thorn clicked and swivelled his 6ft 3in and kept the traffic moving, all unaware that the next day’s Essex Chronicle was already printing a letter suggesting that his courtesy, service, and goodwill should be rewarded with the Freedom of Chelmsford.”
“In the Newspaper Office And inside the building of the Essex Chronicle, Norman White, bespectacled family man, sat down at the side of the roaring press and took a bite at some sandwiches. The first of seven editions was streaming out. “Ought to be pretty early tonight,” he shouted above the din. “With luck we should all be away between half-past nine and ten …… “
The Aberdeen Journal, in its edition published on Friday 30th July, reported on conditions in London and how the population was coping (or not!) with the heat:
“The metropolis last night was like a large restless household—with all the lights ablaze, doors and windows thrown open, the family fretful, and endless pots of tea brewing far into this morning.
“Perhaps one in ten among the 8,000,000 of us slept after midnight. For the rest, we tossed and turned and saw out this heatwave night, when temperatures were never below 71 degrees, a variety of ways. About midnight I walked past the gaunt old Edwardian mansions in Kensington. With the exception the lights that burned from every window, the scene was reminiscent of the early days of the Blitz.
“Families trekked across the roadway in varying stages of undress to their little bits of ornamental gardens. With them went camp beds, bed linen, umbrellas, “in case,” the children, and the household pets, choose a cool open-air camping spot and feel wonderfully adventurous and spartan in the process.”
“At regular intervals the adolescent members of the squatting colonies were dispatched to the tea and coffee stalls on the corner, and perhaps for the first time in years these traders ran out of stocks. On the Kensington-Chelsea boundary, where life becomes noticeably less inhibited and on occasions less swish, a mixed group of young artists was sleeping on the pavement off Fulham Road.
“Round the next corner, where many theatrical and film stars live, several had slung hammocks on their meagre front lawns – one actually suspended between the bathroom windows of two adjacent houses. Midnight street wear for both sexes was cool if unconventional —silk pyjamas, bath robes, tennis shorts, and one in kilt and bathing costume top who could have gone straight into the arena at Lonach.”
The column goes on to describe the situation in the House of Commons where the heat had reached “almost Turkish bath intensity”.
“Some members were in natty tussore silk suitings, but this helped little, and it was many of their number who appealed to the Speaker to have more windows opened. The Speaker, panting like the rest of us, said they were all open. If they wanted more cool breezes from the Thames, members would have to smash the windows.”
More evidence of reportage became evident during the June 1952 heatwave which ranks 8th.
Peter Chambers, of the Evening Express, wrote:
“London is hot. It is going to get hotter. That merry mercury column is poking up into the eighties already. That’s what faces us at the height of a heatwave.
“Bus tyres sizzle on the melted tarmac in the streets. At office windows, the girls are pattering away at their typrewriters with damp, discouraged fingers.
“It’s a scorcher. Even the sparrows are panting.”
The reporter describes the scene at London Bridge at 9.30am: “Well, as I came over London Bridge with the 9.30 surge of sweltering suburbia, a bus conductor hopped off his traffic-jammed vehicle and grabbed a couple of ice chips off a Billingsgate lorry. One for him, one for the driver. “What I want, mate,” said the driver ungratefully, “is a ‘ole block of the freezin’ stuff – to sit on.” That is the male reaction to the heatwave.
“The female reaction is typified by the secretary in this office, who buzzes off to the ladies’ room every half-hour to atomise herself with eau de cologne. Ever since she read that fragrant publicity handout, which said “It’s not enough, girls, NOT to be hot and sticky, you’ve got to smell NICE-TO-BE-NEAR…”
The author takes a walk past Embankment and up to Trafalgar Square: “The girls are in topless frocks. Even the men have got their jackets off – a sight abhored further east, where the rigid convention of the City demands that you sweat it out in your dark worsted, regardless.”
At 1pm he finds foreigners feeding the pigeons by Nelson’s Columns and Londoners feeding themselves on bags of strawberries priced at 1/9. By 3pm he’d made it to the Serpentine Lido along with 3,000 other people. He describes at like “Margate on a Bank Holiday”.
The summer of 1959 was glorious but many cool nights saw the season fall short of my 23.5C threshold. It would be a long time before summers were nice again.
The top 6 of my league of heatwaves are all occupied by much more recent events, including 1976 and 1990, both of which are dealt with in the blog I wrote last year – 50 years of London heatwaves. The heatwave that topped them all, in terms of sheer intensity and produced the UK’s hottest day ever, happened in 2003.
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.
In terms of length, heat and sunshine, therefore, 2003 comes out on top. Though many people will argue that 1976 is the more impressive summer that year produced two spells that satisfy my criteria, coming in second and fifth. The first heatwave saw temperatures soar above 31° C 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 35°C 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 23.5°C or higher.
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.
Any football followers reading this will notice that my ‘premier league’ is two positions short. But with the gradual increase in temperature, particularly at night-time during heatwaves, I don’t think it will be long before these positions are filled.
A complete set of 500mb reanalysis charts have been uploaded and can be watched as a GIF movie
* There were hot spells before 1852 but I have excluded these: Luke Howard’s maxima observations from Plaistow, Stratford and Tottenham were taken under non-standard conditions and may be on the high side. I have instead focused my investigation on data recorded at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
** For some reason the data during a couple of years in the 1950s was incomplete – to fill in these gaps I used official data gathered at Kew. The data is completed up to the present day using my own observations taken since 1988.
*** As already mentioned prior to these dates data is unreliable as conditions for collection were not strictly controlled. However, there are many records of extreme heat. On Sunday, August 1, 1868, the Gloucester Journal published a report on the “Heat of previous years” detailing an account of hot spells going back to 1806. “Mr. G. J. Symons gives a number of interesting particulars in reference the heat of previous seasons in this country. We abstract the following
1806: Very hot in parts of June and July. At Plaistow the temperature was 95 degrees on June 10th, and 90 degrees or upwards on three days.
1808: Very hot from July 12th to 19th. On the 12th a thermometer in perfect shade in a window in St James’s Park was 81.5 degrees at 3pm, and on the 13th at the same hour, 94 degrees. On the same day four men and seven women were killed by sunstroke in various parts of the Midland counties, and numerous coach and other horses were also killed. On the 15th a very violent and destructive thunderstorm in Gloucestershire, Monmouthshire, and surrounding counties.
1818:July a very hot month. At Tottenham on the 24th Luke Howard registered 93 degrees at Somerset House on the same day it was 89 degrees, and in the Strand 87 degrees at noon. The mean temperature of that day at Greenwich was 79.2 degrees, which was higher than any other day between 1814 and 1863. The following paragraph appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine for September, 1818: “It is worthy of remark that the heat of the present summer has been universal. From the north to the south of Europe the heat has been greater and more lasting than for 40 years On July 24th the thermometer here (where!) was 98 degrees, which had never been reached except on July 16th, 1793. At Paris July 31st it was 93 degrees and at Philadelphia 100 degrees.” From 19th to 21st violent thunderstorms in the west of England.
1825: July remarkable, if not unique, in its constant and excessive temperature. At Stratford Luke Howard registered 90 degrees or upwards on seven days, the highest being 97 degrees on the 18th.
1826: The heat was very great. In May the thermometer reached 76 degrees, June 92, July 89, August 85. Two men were killed by sunstroke near London. The fields were as brown as the roads. After two months’ drought the rivulets were gone, and many of the wells dry. The hay crop was deficient from long drought. Country is parched, and corn in some places, though only a few inches above ground, was shooting into ear. Several hills and moors caught fire. In Worcestershire the excessive heat and drought almost wholly destroyed the pasturage, and trees were lopped to feed the cattle.
1846: July 5 was very hot, 93.3 degrees being registered at Greenwich, and 94 degrees at Clapham (94 degrees has been recorded there again in the only other instance at that station.
1852: July of this wet year was remarkably hot, the mean monthly temperature (66.6 degrees) having only been exceeded by July 1778 when it was 67 degrees; and July 1859 when it was 68.1 degrees. Tho extreme heat, however, was only 90.3 degrees at Greenwich.
1857: On June 28, 92.7 deg. was recorded at Greenwich.
1858: June was a very hot day, 94.5 degrees being reached at Greenwich.
1859: Temperatures of 92, 92.5, and 93.0 degrees were recorded at Greenwich.”