Winter in the London area this year is likely to be average overall, following the pattern of the past two winters that saw little snow.
A rather mild December, dominated by a SW’ly flow with only brief, cooler, NW’ly incursions, will be followed by a rather cold January and average February. Rainfall throughout is likely to be average or slightly above. Probabilities of this scenario are listed in the tables.
The best chance of any snow is most likely to be at the end of January, though given the generally mild pattern it is not likely to last longer than two or three days.
Much has been said about how El Niño will affect this winter. The more hysterical parts of the media tell us we will see a repeat of 2009-10, a cold winter that saw frequent snowfall. But their assertion ignores the fact that other winters following a strong El Niñohave been exceptionally mild.
This autumn has shown some striking similarities with 1997, a record El Niño year, that was followed by a very mild winter in this area, the third warmest since 1797. This autumn was also similar to 1994 – another El Niño year – followed by the fourth warmest winter on record.
But just as you think the pattern is the same the El Niño this year is different in that it is an El Niño Modoki – a full-Pacific basin El Niño that differs from the one in 1997. In other words we really are in unfamiliar territory.
So before I get too bogged down in finding teleconnections with El Niño, perhaps it is wiser to go back to more traditional ways of trying to predict the coming season.
Before I trawled through the figures my initial gut reaction to this winter was that it would be mild – because of some blocking in September/October.
As well as my method of using rainfall and temperature I also considered other methods. One, of which I see mentioned very little these days, was Russian research that states that the weather pattern in the winter will be the opposite to the weather on September 17th and November 7th. This autumn September 17th was NE’ly and November 7th was SW’ly. So, of little use this year.
You can read the method 0f how I reached my conclusion here.
Much of the UK media has been very persistent in the past few months in saying that large positive anomaly El Niño years herald cold winters – basing their assumption on one year: 2009/10.
Whilst that winter was very cold, among the top 10 coldest of the last 70 years in this area, another El Niñoyear, 1997/98 – the strongest in recent history – brought London its third-warmest winter in a record going back to 1797.
When I had a look at ENSO data going back to 1950 a few months ago I found it impossible to find a definitive teleconnection between El Niño and winters in north-west Europe. However, now that we are midway through November, and with a fair impression of how the monthly mean will finish, I had another look.
NOAA data shows that the most similar El Niño years to this are: 1957, 1965, 1972, 1982, 1997, 2002. Taking in to account only mean temperature shows that November values have increased.
What does this mean for this winter? It is still impossible to tell and is just another variable to consider when the time comes to predict winter.
What kind of summer is in store this year? According to Richard Kirwan’s weatherlore we’re odds on for a dryer than average season.
Kirwan, a Dublin-based chemist with a keen interest in the weather, deduced from observations made from 1677 to 1789 that the weather around the spring equinox provided a very good pointer to what was in store in the months ahead.
The lore, noted in Luke Howard‘s Climate of London, suggests that the probability is five to one in favour of a dry summer.
The detail, however, hinges around key dates.
1/ When there has been no storm before or after the vernal equinox the ensuing summer is generally dry, at least five times in six.
2/ When a storm happens from an easterly point on the 19th, 20th, or 21st of March the succeeding summer is dry, four times in five.
3/ When a storm arises on the 25th, 26th, or 27th of March, and not before, in any point, the succeeding summer is generally dry, four times in five.
4/ If there should be a storm at SW, or WSW, on the 19th, 20th, or 22nd of March, the succeeding summer is generally wet, five times in six.
Howard goes on to say: “Dry summers (this philosopher states) are the consequence of uniform winds, from whatever quarter they may blow; as wet summers are of their variation, particular if in opposite directions.”
Again, “Southerly winds are most frequently accompanied with rain in most parts of Europe at least, and probably in most parts of our hemisphere; but northerly and easterly, with clear dry and serene weather.”
And it seems reasonable to suppose that the wind which is to prevail during the summer, may most frequently set in with the vernal equinox.”
I’ve had a look back through my own records and this theory falls down, when you consider the absolute detail, on notable summers including 1995. But then, just like weather forecasting at short range, it is all about ‘chance’ – five times in six is still only an 83 per cent certainty.
There is also the matter of how Kirwan and Howard defined a “storm”. What we would call a storm now would be very rare in the second half of March anywhere around London, possibly less rare in the Dublin area. I am also assuming that Kirwan remembered to take into account the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752.
What is notable, however, is how far ahead of their time Kirwan, Howard and other scientists were in having the thought to notice these patterns – something that continues to fascinate amateur and professional meteorologists alike today.
Signals for winter have always been well reported by the media. Back in the 1980s weather anoraks across Britain would wait with bated breath to read Bill Foggitt‘s latest prognostications for the coming winter. Though Foggitt had some success his observations, among other weather ‘gurus’, often amounted to weatherlore that has only a slightly greater than evens chance of being right.
One popular myth is that very large blackberries mean a harsh winter. The fact that this has more to do with plentiful rainfall plumping up the fruit at harvest time is ignored.
Colin Finch’s 38F minus rule is altogether different and provides a very good guide to the kind of weather we can expect in January and February. For the rule to work the maximum temperature must be 38F (3.3C) or less for four consecutive days before Christmas Day.
Colin, an amateur meteorologist who passed away in 1991, spent much time researching his rule in the 1970s. He found that most of the coldest winters since the end of the second world war gave a hint of things to come in the weeks leading up to Christmas: the Decembers of 1946, 1955, 1962, 1968, 1969, 1978 were all followed by cold late winters. In 1984 and 1985 the cold spell arrived at Christmas. Other years to loosely follow the rule, 1986, and 1990.
A few weeks ago I was reminded about Colin’s findings and decided to have another look, using daily record data for this area stretching back to 1806.
The results were surprising. If there is a run of cold days (3.3C or less) around mid-month the chance of an average to colder than average January and February is 94% and 74% respectively. The chance of an average to colder than average March is 96%. Also notable is that the chance of a severe spell in January (4C colder than normal) is 30%.
So much for the figures. What are the chances of a run of cold days between now and Christmas Day?
Up until this week the weather has been fairly quiet with little rain and cold, often frosty nights. But westerlies are now roaring back in from the Atlantic and could be a hint of what is likely to prevail later in the winter. However, the ‘crunch’ time for the 38F minus rule comes soon after the middle of the month. If a spell of Arctic weather develops at that time, even if it lasts only a few days, then the chances of a major cold spell after Christmas are much higher.
As I write this blog the models suggest that a run of cold days may just be possible. It is also notable that the likelihood of a sudden stratospheric warming event, argued by many to be a precursor for conditions that would favour the development of a cold spell, is increasing with a peak set for mid January.
We’ll see but Colin Finch’s findings all those years ago are fascinating and are still relevant today.
* The following obituary appeared in an edition of Weather magazine, a publication of the Royal Meteorological Society, in 1991.
“Colin Finch – The news of the sudden death of Colin Finch on Friday, 23 August 1991 at the tragically early age of 55 will be received with sadness by Members of the society and readers of Weather.
There is no doubt that Colin was one of the most enthusiastic amateur meteorologists that the Society has ever had and, without seeking publicity for himself, he was responsible for making many other amateur enthusiasts aware of the Society and encouraging them to join.
Colin’s interest in the weather began when he was a small boy and received a considerable boost during the snowy and very cold winter of 1946/47 when he was 10 years old. In 1949, at the age of 13, he began to take regular temperature and rainfall readings and gradually added more sophisticated equipment. His record of daily weather data was unbroken until July 1991 when he became too ill to continue.
When he left school in 1953 he joined the Meteorological Office as a Scientific Assistant at Kingsway and was trained under the keen eye of Dick Ogden. Later, after a spell at Heathrow Airport, he left the Office frustrated by his inability to develop a career because he didn’t have sufficiently good educational qualifications. Instead, he turned to a successful business career but his enthusiasm for weather observing and forecasting increased.
Each day he plotted and analysed synoptic charts compiled from short-wave Morse code transmissions which he took down by hand. In the 1960s and 1970s it was quite normal for him to spend Saturdays plotting a chart for the whole of the Northern Hemisphere from Morse broadcasts. Later he had facsimile and satellite-receiving equipment installed at home.
By the late 1960s he was liaising with local authorities and the police in Surrey, warning them of the likelihood of severe weather events. In 1970 he joined the then newly introduced BBC Radio London and every Friday morning he would discuss current weather events and give climatological background data about the week ahead. For these broadcasts he would get up in the early hours to plot a synoptic chart before he went to the studio.
After the broadcasts he would go to the City for a normal day’s work. He kept up this punishing schedule for several years. When the Society introduced the highly successful one-day Saturday discussion meetings in September 1972 Colin was one of the first amateur meteorologists to give a presentation and he was a regular contributor to these occasions. He was an imposing figure, 6ft 4in tall, and was easy to seek out at meetings.”