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Winter Chills : The Great Winters of 1947 and 1963 in the UK

This is archived content that used to be on the Met Office website, but isn’t anymore so I decided to resurrect it for posterity, adding my own comments and adaptions. It’s a page to refer to when people talk about the harsh winters of 1946-47 and 1962-63, the two UK winters that are used as benchmarks for how bad winter can get.

Rarely in the UK – or anywhere, for that matter – is a train completely buried in snow. But that’s exactly what happened on Dartmoor in March 1891 and in northern Scotland in January 1978. The winters that produced such phenomenal snowstorms were not, however, generally snowy – unlike the remarkable winter of 1947, the snowiest since 1814.

picture of a car stuck in snow at Hebden Bridge – 1963

Fig 1: A car stuck in snow at Hebden Bridge – 1963

Severe winters

Since daily meteorological records began in Britain in the 17th century, there have been a number of severe winters. The coldest of all was probably 1684, when the diarist John Evelyn took a coach to Lambeth along the frozen River Thames. Frost Fairs were frequent as the flow of the Thames was restricted by the bridges, slowing it down and making it more susceptible to freezing over.

There was an exceptionally cold and protracted winter in 1739/40 when, between November 1739 and May 1740, snow fell on 39 days in the London area. January in both 1795 and 1814 were colder than January 1740, and the month of February in 1855, 1895 and 1947 were colder than February 1740.

England and Wales would have to wait 223 years for a winter as cold as 1740: this came in 1963.

But what was so remarkable about the 1739/40 winter however, is that the mean temperatures of both January and February were below freezing (0 °C) in the Midlands and southern England. The only other known instance of two successive months with mean temperatures below freezing took place in December 1878 and January 1879.

Before the brutal winter of 1962-63, there was also the equally notorious winter of 1946-47.

The serious snowfall in 1947

Although there were many shorter wintry interludes before Christmas in the winter of 1946-47, the ‘famous’ part of the winter didn’t really get going until the last third of January (see below).

From 22 January to 17 March in 1947, snow fell every day somewhere in the UK, with the weather so cold that the snow accumulated to a great depth. The temperature seldom rose more than a degree or two above freezing, which meant that very little melt occurred and snow just piled up, layer upon layer, until great depths were evident.

There were several snowfalls of 60cm or more, and depths of level snow reached 150 cm in upper Teesdale and the Denbighshire Hills. Across Britain, drifts more than five metres deep blocked roads and railways. People were cut off for days. The armed services dropped supplies by helicopter to isolated farmsteads and villages, and helped to clear roads and railways.

The Calm Before the Storm

In mid January 1947, no-one expected the winter to go down in the annals as the snowiest since 1814 and among the coldest on record. After two cold spells that had failed to last – one before Christmas 1946, the other during the first week of January – the weather had turned unseasonably mild.

0600 UTC on 31 January 1947. A low near the channel islands and high over southern Scandinavia, a typical pressure situation during the 1947 winter. Occlusion giving snow over southern counties of England

Fig 2: 0600 UTC on 31 January 1947. A low near the channel islands and high over southern Scandinavia, a typical pressure situation during the 1947 winter. Occlusion giving snow over southern counties of England.

During the night of 15-16 January, the temperature at Leeming in North Yorkshire didn’t fall below 11.7 °C. The following day, maximum temperatures close to 14 °C were recorded in Norfolk, Herefordshire and Flintshire. All this was soon to change.

An area of high pressure moved northwards from France on 18 January. Two days later, the anticyclone was centred off north-west Norway. It then drifted south-east to southern Scandinavia, and dominated weather over the British Isles for the rest of the month. The first night frost came on the 20th and the winter began in earnest on the 23rd, when snow fell heavily over the south and south-west of England. Even in the Isles of Scilly, a few centimetres of snow fell. The blizzard in south-west England was the worst since 1891; many villages in Devon were isolated.

1947’s Unrelenting harsh weather

  • The cold, snowy weather continued through February and into March. Any breaks in the cold weather were short-lived.
  • On no day in February 1947 did the temperature at Kew Observatory top 4.4 °C, and only twice in the month was the night minimum temperature above 0 °C
  • The mean maximum temperature for the month was 0.5 °C (6.9 °C below average) and the mean minimum was -2.7 °C (4.6 °C below average)
  • On 26 of the month’s 28 days, snow was lying at 0900 UTC
  • South of a line from The Wash to the River Dee, mean maximum temperatures were everywhere more than 5.5 °C below average and, in some places, more than 7 °C below average
  • Mean minimum temperatures were more than 4 °C below average everywhere in the south and south-west of England, and almost 6 °C below average in some places

February 1947 was the coldest February on record in many places and, for its combination of low temperatures with heavy snow, bore comparison with January 1814.

One notable feature of February 1947 was the lack of precipitation in parts of western Scotland. Because of the persistent anticyclonic conditions, some places that were normally very wet had no rain at all. A completely dry month in western Scotland is unusual. It was unprecedented in February.

Another unusual feature of February 1947 was the lack of sunshine in the Midlands and south of England – a complete contrast to the north-west of Scotland, where the weather was unusually sunny.

At Kew, Nottingham and Edgbaston, there was no sun on 22 of the month’s 28 days. At Kew, there was none at all from the 2nd to the 22nd. Hardly anywhere in the Midlands and southern England did the sunshine totals for the month exceed 40 per cent of average.

When skies did clear, night-time temperatures plunged. A minimum of -21 °C was recorded at Woburn in Bedfordshire early on 25 February. Without the cloud, the month would almost certainly have been even colder than it was, certainly at night.

March 1947 : More snow, flooding and then gales

In some parts of the British Isles, snow fell on as many as 26 days in February 1947. Much of the snow was powdery and was soon whipped into deep drifts by strong winds.

If February hadn’t been enough, March was even worse. In the first half of the month, there were more gales and heavy snowstorms.

A picture of a bus driving through water during the flooding of 1947

Fig 3: The flooding of 1947

On 4 and 5 March, heavy snow fell over most of England and Wales, with severe drifting. On 6 March, drifts were five metres deep in the Pennines and three metres deep in the Chilterns. In some places, glazed frost occurred. On 10 and 11 March, southern Scotland had its heaviest snowfall of the winter, and the snowstorm reached the Scottish Highlands, where, on 12 March, drifts more than seven metres deep were reported.

Meanwhile, mild air with a temperature of 7-10 °C edged into the extreme south-west of the British Isles on 10 March, bringing rain. The ensuing thaw was rapid. By the evening of 11 March, vast areas of southern England were under water. After weeks of frost, the ground was frozen hard. The rain and meltwater couldn’t soak into the ground. Surface run-off was the only option.

The warm air spread northwards and eastwards. Meltwater from the Welsh mountains poured into the valleys of the Severn and Wye, flooding Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. The rivers of the English Midlands burst their banks. By 13 March, Fenland rivers were close to overspilling.

On 15 March, a deepening depression from the Atlantic approached the British Isles, bringing rain and severe gales. During the afternoon of 16 March, mean winds over southern England reached 50 knots, with gusts of 80-90 knots.

Buildings were damaged and waves were whipped up on floodwaters. In East Anglia, where the major rivers flow north-eastwards, the south-westerly wind drove water before it and waves pounded the dykes. Water levels rose and the dykes gave way. Most of Fenland was inundated. Troops were called in, but they could do little to stop water pouring through the breached dykes.

River levels rose relentlessly. For example, the banks of the Trent burst at Nottingham on 18 March and hundreds of homes were flooded, many to first floor level. When floodwater reached the tidal part of the Trent, it was impeded by a spring tide, and the whole of the lower Trent valley was flooded.

The floods in the West Country subsided after 20 March, but rivers continued to rise in eastern England. The Wharfe, Derwent, Aire and Ouse all burst their banks and flooded a huge area of southern Yorkshire. The town of Selby was almost completely under water. Only the ancient abbey and a few streets around the market place escaped inundation. Seventy per cent of all houses in the town were flooded.

A graph of Maximum and minimum temperatures Edgbaston, Warwickshire 15 Dec 1946-16 Mar 1947

Fig 4: Maximum and minimum temperatures
Edgbaston, Warwickshire 15 Dec 1946-16 Mar 1947

The cold and snowy weather had, at last, ended, but the misery of the floods continued into the spring. And to make matters worse, the severe difficulties caused by the winter of 1947 were aggravated by the fuel and food shortages that remained after the Second World War.

1962-63 was the coldest winter since 1740

The winter of 1962/63 was the coldest over England and Wales since 1740. As in 1947, anticyclones to the north and east of the British Isles brought bitterly cold winds from the east day after day. As in 1947, depressions followed tracks to southward of the British Isles and their fronts brought snow to England, Wales and the southernmost parts of Scotland.
Mean maximum temperatures for January 1963 were more than 5 °C below average over most of Wales, the Midlands and southern England and in some places more than 7 °C below average. Mean minimum temperatures over this area were equally far below average. The story was much the same in February.

The winter began abruptly, just before Christmas in December 1962. The weather in the first three weeks of December was changeable and sometimes stormy, but not particularly snowy. From the 4th to the 6th December, London experienced its worst spell of fog since the Great Smog of 1952.

Ten days later, the weather was particularly wet and stormy, with a gust of 88 knots recorded at Blackpool during the night of 15/16 December, the strongest since records began in 1946. The weather situation changed markedly on 22 December. On the 23rd, high pressure extended all the way from the southern Baltic to Cornwall, bringing cold easterly winds to much of England and Wales.

A belt of rain over northern Scotland on 24 December turned to snow as it moved south, giving Glasgow its first white Christmas since 1938. The snow belt reached southern England on Boxing Day and became almost stationary. The following day, snow lay five centimetres deep in the Channel Islands and 30 cm deep in much of southern England.

Weather chart showing the start of the winter: the cold front that brought the snow to England on 26 December 1962. Chart for 0600 UTC on 26 December.

Fig 5: The start of the winter: the cold front that brought the snow to England on 26 December 1962. Chart for 0600 UTC on 26 December.

A blizzard over south-west England and south Wales on 29 and 30 December brought snowdrifts 6 m deep. Villages were cut off, some for several days. Roads and railways were blocked. Telephone wires were brought down. Stocks of food ran low. Farmers couldn’t reach their livestock. Thousands of sheep, ponies and cattle starved to death.

From Boxing Day 1962 to early March 1963, much of England was continuously under snow. Unlike the winter of 1947, however, 1962/63 was sunnier than average in most parts of the area affected, considerably so in some places.

Manchester’s sunshine total for January was more than twice the average. Even in the south of England, where snow fell frequently, sunshine totals were above average in most places.

The most remarkable feature of the 1962/63 winter was not so much its snowiness as its coldness. The winter of 1947 was snowier than 1962/63, but not as cold.

In January 1963, there were 25 or more air frosts almost everywhere in southern England and south Wales. In February 1963, air frost occurred every night at Durham, and almost every night in the English Midlands. At several stations in southern England and south Wales, mean maximum temperatures were below 0 °C in January and little higher in February. Mean minimum temperatures were well below freezing almost everywhere in England, Wales and Scotland away from coasts. Extremely low temperatures were recorded – for example, a minimum of -22.2 °C was recorded at Braemar on 18 January.

A graph of Maximum and minimum temperatures Leckford, Hampshire 8 Dec 1962 - 9 Mar 1963

Fig 6: Maximum and minimum temperatures
Leckford, Hampshire 8 Dec 1962 – 9 Mar 1963

Lakes and rivers froze. Ice formed on harbours in the south and east of England. Patches of ice formed on the sea. Huge blocks of ice formed on beaches where waves broke and the spray froze. Coastal marine life suffered severely.

As in 1947, so it was in the winter of 1962/63: brief thaws occurred from time to time, and winter didn’t fully relax its grip before early March. In the last few days of February and the first few days of March 1963, sunny weather brought afternoon temperatures of 4 or 5 °C, but clear skies allowed temperatures to plummet at night. Frosts were moderate or severe.

At last, on 4 March, a mild south-westerly flow of air reached the British Isles. There was occasional rain that day in most parts of Britain, and further rain the following day in the west and north, this time prolonged. On 6 March, there was no frost anywhere in the British Isles and the temperature in London reached 17 °C – the highest since 25 October 1962.

The coldest winter over England and Wales since 1740, and the coldest over Scotland since 1879, had ended. With the thaw came flooding, but nothing like the scale of the 1947 floods. Soon after the winter of 1962/63, life returned to normal.

photograph of a boat stranded and surrounded by ice in a harbour in southern england ring the winter of 1962-63

Fig 7: Coastal areas were affected by ice
Photo © Lynn Tait Gallery

February 2019 – Historically warm after a freezing start

February started very cold, with the first 3 days averaging below freezing. Rain was plentiful until the 9th, but then the dry weather of February returned, accompanied by increasingly warm unseasonal temperatures.

The airstream was coming from the Canary Islands. The all-time February record was smashed in England and Wales on 26th and 27th, topping 20 degC for the first time in a winter month.

Here at my site in Durham, the maximum got to 17.1 degC on 26th, which is a very close to the February record at Durham Observatory, 17.4 degC observed on the 28th February 2012. I wait with baited breath to see whether that has been beaten.

Temperatures returned to normal for the last day, the maximum dropping 10 degrees from 27th. The average for the month was 6.3 degC based on hourly values, and 6.8 deg on the more traditional (max+min)/2 method of calculation. This made February 2018 very warm.

Met Office : Exceptional Warmth in February 2019

The rainfall total was below average again – only 33.6mm in total, with the two wettest days being the 7th (8.7mm) and the 3rd (6.6mm).

Nacreous Clouds over Durham, Feb 2016

A fantastic display of nacreous (mother of pearl) clouds occured across NE England in February 2016. These photos were taken above Durham Cathedral and Castle at about 7:15am.

Nacreous Clouds are quite rare. They can glow very brightly due to iridescence and are much higher than other tropospheric clouds, a height of 15-30km above the ground is typical. They are caused by wave-like motion of air, normally due to the proximity of mountain ranges. Best viewing is just before dawn and just after sunset.

February 1986 – Extremely Cold, One of the Coldest Months on Record

February 1986. Extremely cold (-1.1C CET), with frequent light snowfalls. The second coldest February of the century (after 1947), and fourth coldest month of the twentieth century overall (and the last time a month had a mean beneath zero before December 2010).

The month was similar to January 1963 in being a completely blocked month, with a high centred over north Russia bringing some very cold air east. Winds were easterly for 23 days, and were of virtual calm for the remaining days. It was the most easterly month on record apart from February 1947. Easterly winds had already set in by the end of January.

Snow cover was widespread in the east, where it was very dull: Cupar (Fife) registered only 41 hours sunshine all month. In the west it was very dry and sunny (144 hours sunshine on Anglesey, higher than summer months there; with no measurable rain at all in some western coastal sites). The lowest temperature was at Grantown-on-Spey, where it reached -21.2C on the 27th.

The month was most remarkable for the consistently low maxima; the temperature remained beneath 1C at Buxton (Derbuyshire) all month. The lowest temperature around Birmingham was -11.0C, at Elmdon, on the 21st, and the highest, just 3.8C on the 28th. There was freezing rain in the north Midlands. Up to 50 mm of glaze was recorded on broken power lines at Buxton on the 2nd.

Widdybank Fell, at 513 m above sea level in County Durham, remained beneath freezing all month, and had a total of 32 consecutive days beneath zero – probably a record for a habited area (Trevor has obviously never been to Widdybank Fell, it’s wild, desolate, and definitely not imhabited!). I remember our toilet freezing and a six inch icicle growing out of the cistern overflow. I reckon this is the last time I experienced a temperature beneath -10C. The cold persisted into early March.

For some reason I find that February 1986 is often “the forgotten month” when one talks about extreme winters in Britain. Perhaps this is because there wasn’t any widespread serious disruption due to heavy snow over a wide area, perhaps because there weren’t any record-breaking low temperatures, and perhaps because the rest of the winter was unexceptional. Indeed, some parts of the country had no snow at all. Nevertheless, it was the coldest month since January 1963. It was also the second driest February of the century. Hence I make this the most interesting February of the century.

http://www.trevorharley.com/weather_web_pages/1986_weather.htm

February 1991 – Cold and snowy first half

February 1991. A very cold first half in the south, but mild second half. Overall temperature: CET average of 1.5. There was a notable ten day cold spell at the beginning, as NE winds brought in some very cold air from north Russia, leading to snow across most of Britain and some very low temperatures, making this the most severe spell of weather since 1987 (and still not bettered, if that’s the right word).

The cold air arived from Siberia on the 4th, with temperatures falling on the 5th and 6th, with the 7-9th as the coldest days. Barbourne (Hereford & Worcs.) recorded -15.6 on the 14th; Cawood (North Yorks.) had the lowest at -16.0 on the 14th. There was much powdery snow over England in this period, with some places having 48 hours of snowfall; snow depths of 30cm+ were widespread, particularly in the North East: 50 cms at Bradford and Longframlington.

Even London had 20 cm of snow, the deepest cover since December 1962. The temperature in many places did not rise above freezing from the 5-10th. Some places of the southeast had the coldest February day of the century on the 7th, with maxima around -6C, but widespread very low maxima on the 7th: -5.7 at Bastreet (Cornwall), -5.2C at Whipsnade (Deds.), and at Brighton.The minimum at Guernsey airport on the 7th was -7.2, the equal low for February.

On the 8th the maximum at Princetown (Dartmoor) was -6.0C. There were many injuries from falls on ice and sledging accidents, and a woman in Dartford received severe head injuries from falling icicles. This is the last notably cold snap I remember. It was the last time that most of Britain had snow cover.

Metro trains leaving Monkseaton station

This was the infamous “wrong type of snow” for British Rail: dry and powdery. The thaw caused flooding in north Yorkshire. Milder air and a thaw arrived in all parts on the 15th, with Torquay recording 12.6C. An anticyclone enabled a thaw by day, with some sharp frosts at night, until the 19th, when it became unsettled. There were 133mm of rain in mid-Wales on the 22nd.

http://www.trevorharley.com/weather_web_pages/1991_weather.htm

Website created by D.K. O'Hara Copyright 2018.

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