The cold spell of February 1991 saw unusually deep snowfall in central London. The 20cm recorded at St James’s Park on the 8th was the greatest cover recorded at the site since the severe winter of 1962/63.
Courtesy of the Met Office
My own memory of the event was that the synoptics evolved fairly quickly. I was away at university at the time and had to be back for a family event that weekend. After seeing a forecast predicting that a foot of snow was on the way I jumped on a train a day earlier than planned and returned to London. The following morning all hell had broken loose as deep snow paralysed public transport.
Snow fell on the following 6 days with no thawing as the temperature remained below zero until the 10th. The maximum of the 7th was -3C. By the 9th there was widely 20cm of level powdery snow lying. Getting around was difficult – I remember some drifts during walks into town were thigh high.
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).