A thunderstorm on July 27th has ended a dry spell that lasted nearly 7 weeks in east London. As storms go it was a fairly tame affair, just 1.3mm fell, the first rain in 47 days, 20 hours and 14 mins.
There are many descriptions of drought but the one I am using here, for sheer simplicity of comparison back to 1871, is the definition used up until the 1990s; that is 15 consecutive days with less than 0.25mm (0.01 inches) rain on any one day.
Meteorological droughts occur in most years though obviously ones that occur in summer are far more noticeable than those in winter. Since 1871 there have been 35 calendar years where no drought has taken place.
The longest drought before this one in 2018, probably not surprising for those who remember it, occurred during the long hot summer of 1976. The fact that summer came on top of a very dry winter, rainfall that season was about a third of what was recorded here last winter, meant that water supplies were in a much worse state, with hosepipe bans common.
Other drought years to feature include 1959, which saw the 3rd sunniest summer on record, 1929 and 1995, a summer which saw one of the hottest heatwaves on record.
For the stats I’ve used local rainfall figures back to 1959 and then stats used at Kew to 1871.
Looking at the results more closely I’ve divided them into their meteorological seasons.
The UK’s hottest day was recorded on August 10, 2003, when temperatures across the south-east soared above 38C for the first time.
A study since then has uncovered that the 38.5C (101.3F) value may be anomalous after it became apparent that the Brogdale value was nearly 2C higher than nearby stations – a fact that would normally rule out such a reading. The actual site also leaves something to be desired with the leylandii hedge being too close to the met enclosure – and possibly helping up the temperature. Scientists are a fussy lot and like things to be done properly – believing that the figure of 38.1C recorded at Kew and Gravesend on August 10 represents the true record.
But the Met Office refuse to budge and are sticking with Brogdale.
I recorded 38.4C in my own back garden – but because it is not an official site it doesn’t count. Other sites close by also set records that day: 37.9C was reached at Epping while another observer at Woodford Green recorded 36.5C at 2.30pm.
Being the weather anorak I am my memories of that day are still very clear. The birth of my first daughter was imminent and my wife and I were frantically trying to finish the kitchen of our house in Leytonstone. I’d borrowed a van off a mate that day to pick up kitchen units from the Stansted area. The old Renault Master didn’t have air conditioning and a faulty fan made the cabin feel like an oven. As we trundled back down the M11 from our trip to ‘You’re Furnished’ I wound down the window to experience what I can only describe as like being blasted with a hairdryer. Obviously anything above normal body temperature of 37C is going to feel warm – the opposite of the windchill factor you get in winter. Somehow, through all the heat and pouring with sweat, we managed to unload the van at the other end and completed the kitchen.
The day was the peak of the heatwave with just a couple more 30C days before, much to the relief of my wife, cooler weather arrived. Our daughter was born, over two weeks past her due date, on September 7. A sunny, fresh morning I’ll also never forget.
People often ask if it is possible that the record will be broken. Of course with the right synoptics anything is possible. And official records in the UK, and the world, are just a blip of what has gone before. Diaries of events during the July 1808 heatwave, mentioning accounts of people and livestock dropping dead in fields and birds dropping out of the sky, suggest that somewhere in Lincolnshire possibly saw the temperature exceed 40C.
*The UK record has been broken since this was first written.
Cambridge has been confirmed as the hottest place in the country – reaching a sweltering 38.1 degrees Celsius (100.6F). The temperature has exceeded 100F in Cambridge (14295245) The Met Office has confirmed this is only the second time that a temperature over 100 Fahrenheit has been recorded in the UK.