February 1986 (who remembers that one then?) was one of the coldest Februaries ever recorded in modern times.
Trevor Harley, in his famous weather summaries pages, describes February 1986 thus:
“February 1986. Extremely cold (-1.1C CET), with frequent light snowfalls. The second coldest February of the 20th 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 inhabited area” (Trevor has obviously never been to Widdybank Fell, it’s wild, desolate, and definitely not inhabited!). I remember our toilet freezing and a six inch icicle growing out of the toilet 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“.
Fake Weather News from Exacta Weather and The Daily Express
It’s nearly Winter again, and if you look at the headlines in the papers, you’ll notice that the silly season has started again, particularly regarding weather stories. It’s noticeable that the same names crop up consistently – Exacta weather, James Madden, Piers Corbyn and Nathan Rao.
Every winter now it seems The Daily Express are spouting stories of Snowmaggedon, with 3 months of blizzards and record low temperatures. They claim links with Solar activity, El Nino, and other pseudo-scientific links that are at best dubious and at worst complete and utter garbage.
There also appears to be a small hardcore of characters feeding the papers with this rubbish. The newspapers lap it up, because it sells copy, and that is their business. Most of the stories aren’t based on fact, and some are completely fabricated, irresponsibly by the writers.
The Main Culprit of Fake Weather Stories is Exacta Weather
The three main protagonists of the fake weather stories seem to be:
James Madden (owner of Exacta Weather)
Nathan Rao (freelance journalist often seen posting as a Science Writer in the Daily Express)
Piers Corbyn (Weather Action owner and brother of Labour Party leader Jeremy)
Exacta Weather (James Madden)
Now, as a seasoned amateur weatherman, these three collectively make my blood boil. The first of them, James Madden (‘forecaster’ at Exacta Weather) is the main driver of the rubbish predictions we see in the tabloid newspapers every other day. There’s always a quote from him, three or four paragraphs down, usually heavy with hyperbole. If you read a weather story and James Madden/Exacta Weather is included in it somewhere (in fact, make a point of looking for him), please discount it as complete hogwash. He tries to give the impression that Exacta Weather are a huge company, with banks of computers generating their own model output for James to interpret, but in fact Exacta Weather isn’t even registered at Companies House. No, James is a one man operation running from a flat in Lancaster. A one man bulls**t factory. He lies about his ‘company’ to make you think he’s a force in weather forecasting. In reality he’s just a chancer who saw a route to make some easy money.
James Madden was lucky enough to guess (NOT forecast) the cold December of 2010 and has been trying ever since to replicate that luck under the monicker of Exacta Weather, but it has deserted him. In fact, if you want to know what the weather is going to be like, presume it will be the opposite of what James predicts and you won’t be disappointed. In fact, if you’d placed a bet with the bookies you’d have made a decent sum due to Exacta Weather being totally and consistently wrong since 2010.
Nathan Rao has somehow wormed his way into the celebrity forecasting slot. He likes the sound of his own voice and is one of the new breed of people who’ll do anything to be on TV. He is accepted into the celebrity fold because he fits perfectly into the mould. All teeth and no substance. He is a professional journalist who writes sensational copy to sell newspapers. In that respect, he’s an Editors dream, but his stories contain very little science and sometimes I think he’s submitting a script for the latest Hollywood disaster movie. He should know better, but he’s more concerned with letting the World know he’s the biggest Madonna fan. Enough said I think.
I first came across Piers Corbyn when he was invited to speak at a Meteorological Society meeting at Durham University in the early 1980’s. He is the brother of Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour Party leader. He (Piers) looks like a typical mad professor type and for a while I thought he had an interesting product, WeatherAction. He claimed to have bet on the outcome of his own predictions with a great deal of success, but like the other two, he’s a fanatical self publicist and believes he can declare his own success rate, without having his methods independently verified by his peers.
In fact, it is a common factor that these people all believe they can verify their own methods and their results. They claim high levels of success, but strangely, independent analysis of their methods if they allowed it would reveal actual success rates are worse than chance.
That means that an average chimpanzee could produce results just as good or even better than their systems. Would you take advice on planning your holidays/activities from a chimpanzee?
My advice if you are a discerning reader of weather stories, dismiss these people as charlatans and instead listen to people who know what they’re talking about. Read weather reports from our own Prof Tim Burt (Durham University), Roger Brugge (University of Reading), Trevor Harley and the Royal Meteorological Society. Liam Dutton also tries his hardest to challenge these people producing the sensationalist headlines and can be found Tweeting regularly.
January 1947. Cold (2.2C CET), but not excessively so overall. The month is most memorable for the start of a severe, prolonged, and exceptionally snowy cold spell. Although there had been some significant snowfalls in December, and again on the 4-5th, the harsh winter did not really get going until the third week, after quite a mild interlude (hence the average). After some early cold snaps, there was a very pleasant, mild interlude. The first five days were mild and wet, with a heavy snow fall early on the 6th and snow lying on the ground until the 9th. It then turned very mild with westerly winds from the 14th to 18th.
It reached 14C in places on the 16th; Saturday 18 January was sunny and mild, and then … The severe winter really started on the 20th January, with the first frost since the 7th. On the 22nd, a NE airflow brought cold air all the way from Siberia. There were frequent snow showers on the 22nd and 23rd. On the 26th much of England experienced continual frost. There was a major blizzard in the southwest on the 28th. There was a minimum of -21C early on the 29th at Writtle (Essex), and then a maximum of -5C over much of eastern England. There was 17cms of snow on the Isles of Scilly on the 30th.
February 1947. The coldest February ever recorded (-1.9C CET), the second coldest month of the century (after January 1963), and the coldest month overall since January 1814. Many places in England were beneath freezing from the 11th to the 23rd; Greenwich registered 14 consecutive days beneath zero. At Oxford frost began at 6 pm on the 10th and continued until 6 am on the 26th. The record low average was mainly determined by the very low maxima. Low minima were not outstanding because of the extensive cloud cover, until clearer skies at the end of the month, when -21C was recorded at Wolburn on the 25th.
It was a persistent easterly month of the sort that weather people long for: large amounts of snow in the east (e.g. 1.35 m of snow lay at Forrest-in-Teesdale (Durham) on the 18th. It was also very dull. There was no sunshine at Kew at all from the 2-22nd inclusive, and only 17 hours of sunshine in total (compared with the average of 61). A side-effect of the easterlies was that the Scottish Highlands had no rain at all this month, for the first time in recorded history, where it was also very sunny. It was, of course, also snowy, with snowstorms particularly affecting the south, midlands, and east. There was a major snowstorm on the 25-26th. It was also quite a windy month. Buxton had 30 consecutive days of frost. At Kew the maximum temperature of the month was 5C. Hence I vote this to be the most interesting February of the century.
March 1947. The severe winter continued into the first half of the month. There were some very low temperatures -21.1C at Haughall, Durham, Peebles, and Braemar, on the 4th; widespread flooding after a rapid thaw of the famous winter; ice storms, blizzards, heavy rainfall, and on average the wettest March on record (177mm , which was 300% of average). Heavy snowfall over England and Wales on the 4th and 5th, including several cms in the London area, caused more disruption. There were more readings of -20C on the 8th, including -21.1C at Braemar. Much of the country was covered in snow for the first part of the month, with drifts up to 5 m deep on the Pennines, and even up to 3 m at Whipsnade on the 9th.
Warm air and heavy rain started to move in on the 10th March. This led at first to a great snowstorm in Scotland on the 12-13th. 85 kn wind was recorded at Mildenhall, and a mean windspeed of 38 kn at Edgbaston, both in a severe SW gale on the 16th that affected south Wales and the south of England in one of the worst March storms of recent times. Flooding was particularly severe in the east, particularly the Fen country. More heavy sleet in Sussex on the 28th, as temperatures fell again at the end of the month. It was the coldest month of the century in Scotland, and the wettest of the century in England and Wales (177.5 mm, 292% – the highest percentage, too). Clearly this must be the most interesting March for weather of the century!
December 1962. Cold (1.8C CET), and generally quite sunny, although smog early in the month (starting on the 4th) probably killed several hundred people in London. This was the last of the great London smogs before the Clean Air Acts took effect. There was persistent freezing fog elsewhere in the country, around the 10th, followed by a wintry outbreak, with some snow across the country on the 12th and 13th. Midmonth there was rain and some severe gales as the weather became very mild. But the month is most notable as the start of the Great Freeze, one of the two greatest prolonged weather events of this century by my reckoning (the other being the summer of 1976).
The pressure started to rise on Saturday 21st; there was widespread dense fog, with many football matches postponed. Cold air started to set in on December 22nd as an anticyclone formed over northern Scandinavia, bringing very cold continental air west from Russia. On the 23rd the pressure in the Scandinavian high reached 1050 mbars. There were a few days that were cold but sunny in the daytime, and with severe frost at night. Over Christmas the Scandinavian anticyclone collapsed and a new one formed over Iceland, bringing northerly winds down across the country from Greenland.
The front separating the cold Arctic air from the north met the even colder Continental air originating from Russia from the east gave a significant snowfall as it moved south across the country. It started snowing in the far north on Christmas Eve, and the cold front moved slowly south. Hence although Christmas Day was cold but sunny in the south, with maxima ranging from -4C to 0C, there was snowfall in the north: Glasgow had a White Christmas. The snow reached Lancashire at about midnight on Christmas night, and continued to move south across most of England during Boxing Day, reaching the Midlands around midday and finally reaching London and the south around midnight.
I remember vividly waking up to snow and frost the next day. After this, a block was then formed, and cold air established. Occasionally mild air approached the south west, but the great winter was set until to the end of February 1963. Over much of the country snow lay from December 26th until March 2 (67 consecutive days). 2-4″ of snow fell in the north, but snow fell for longer (two days) south of the Thames, leaving up to 18″. The second major snowfall of the end of the month was on the 29-30th, and was accompanied by bitter, gale-force easterly winds. By the end of the month there were snow drifts of 8′ in Kent and 15′ in the west. This is the first major weather event I remember (apart from some frightening – to me – thunderstorms). I remember making a snowman, and the thick frost coating the windows.
January 1963. The coldest month this century (-2.1C CET), the fifth coldest month ever, and part of the Big Freeze. Indeed, this was the coldest month since 1814. There as not a single westerly or southwesterly day in sight: there were 20 easterly days (with the rest calm or northerly). Much of England and Wales was snow-covered throughout.
A notable snowstorm occurred on the 3-4th in the Southwest and Welsh Borders, with drifts up to 5 m deep, and 10-20 cm of fresh level snow in places; the snow was accompanied by a strong wind. The easterly winds lessened for a while in the second week, and there were some very low temperatures. The minimum was -19.4C at Achany (Sutherland) on the 11th. Shawbury had a maximum of -7C on the 12th. -16C was recorded at Gatwick and Eskdalemuir on the 13th, with freezing fog. It was slightly less cold midmonth, as winds turned slightly more northerly; however, many places still managed to stay beneath freezing from the 14-15th.
Winds turned easterly again on the 17th for the most severe week of the winter. There was a minimum of -22.2C at Braemar on the 18th: this was the lowest minimum of the winter. There was another notable blizzard on the 19-20th, particularly affecting the southeast, with widespread maxima of -5C in the south. There was freezing rain in places on the 20th. In this spell, the highest hourly mean wind speed records were set (99 mph, at Great Dun Fell, Cumbria, on the 15th, and Lowther Hill, Scotland, on the 20th). The lowest minimum reported in England was -20.6C at Hereford on the 23rd; also -20.6C at Stanstead Abbotts (Herts.), early on the 23rd, and then a maximum of only -8C at Ross-on-Wye the next day.
There was a snowdrift 25′ deep on Dartmoor on the 21st. There was much freezing fog on the 24th. For the first time since 1947, there was pack ice on large estuaries such as the Solent, Mersey, and Humber. Many places in the SE stayed beneath freezing from the 16-25th. At Eastbourne the sea was reported as frozen to an extent of 100′ offshore for a length of 2 miles. The weather turned less cold on the 26th, with some places having the first frost-free night of the month. Pressure of 1048 mbar in Scotland on the 27th. Winter as a whole was the wost since 1739-40. One consequence of the prevailing easterlies was that some sheltered westerly locations were very sunny: St Mawgan (Cornwall) reached 114.4 hours (a record). Also some westerly spots were extremely dry. See also December 1962 and February 1963. Hence I rate this the most interesting January of the century.
February 1963. Very cold, and part of the Big Freeze (-0.7C CET). We have not otherwise had two consecutive months beneath freezing in the twentieth century. The cold continued into March. Again, the prevailing easterlies gave some high sunshine totals in the west (e.g. 135 hours at Sellafield). Much of the country lay covered in snow all month. The month begain with cold NNE winds, giving more light snow across the south. There were some very low temperatures in some coastal regions on the 4th and 5th: -17.8C at Coltishall (Norfolk) early on the 5th.
There was a phenomenal snowstorm on the 6-7th affected mainly the west (the SW, Wales, Northern Ireland), and gave 1.5 m of lying snow at Tredegar (Monmouthshire; quoted at the time as “5 1/2 feet”). This is the record snow depth for an urban area of the UK. There were some slight thaws mid month: there was an appreciable thaw on the 9th, mas winds turned briefly to the south; and some places in the south had a thaw of 4 hours on Valentine’s Day, as the temperatures struggled up to 1C, before it started snowing again.
March 1963. The end of the Big Freeze. It ended gently, without widespread flooding, owing to a gentle thaw in sunshine during the first few days of the month. It still reached -16C at Braemar on the 2nd. Many places in lowland Britain lost their snow cover on March 4th – for the first time since December 26th. By the 6th it reached 17C in London. On the 2nd Cape Wrath recorded a humidity reading of only 6%.
Winterwatch Special – The Big Freeze of 1962-63 (59 mins)
Memories from Phil, who lived in Witton Park
My family moved from Witton Park to Newton Aycliffe in October 1962. The following winter was a corker, viewed through a kid’s eyes. There’s was lots of snow, several times, but there was an accompanying numbing cold that seemed to be there all the time. The snow that was pushed to the side of the roads got refrozen and was hard as the hobs of hell; it was difficult for older people to cross the street because of it. Everyone seemed to walk around arm in arm for safety.
I remember an eruption of Waxwings (from the northern continent I learned later) which I was thrilled to witness. They ate what few berries were left on the hawthorns. I remember seeing a depressing picture on TV (black and white of course) of a blue-tit frozen to a branch.
We built igloos and snow forts that lasted weeks. Sledging down the banks of the Ranges (now called Woodham Burn) was superlative. Snowballing was banned at school because of the consistency of the snow (almost ice). My old man was always bitchin’ about getting to work (he rode a Triumph 500 Speed-Twin).
And I remember how quiet it was after dark. Fewer street lamps then (still gas in Witton Park) and a deep, deep silence everywhere. Kept warm by pans of broth and socks for mittens.
November 1978. Very warm until a northerly outbreak on the 24th. Although it was mild and dry in the south, it was wet and often stormy in the north. There was a gust of 115 mph at Fair Isle on the 14th. 1978 was the last time we saw a November providing less than 50 mm of rain.
December 1978. The start of a memorable winter: the Winter of Discontent was also often cold and snowy. The were frequent gales early in the month. On the 13th, there was a damaging hailstorm in south Devon. Some snowfalls in the week before Christmas, although Christmas itself was mild and dominated by SW winds and heavy rain. The Scandinavian blocking high was then in place at the end of the month, laying the ground work for the severe winter to come. The cold winter started on the 28th, when there was a marked contrast on the 28th: maximum of 14C in Guernsey, but beneath freezing all day in parts of Scotland. There were 255 mm of rain in 48 hours over the Mountains of Mourne in Ireland at this time. The floodwaters in northern England froze hard, and snow fell on top. A severe blizzard struck southern and eastern England on the 30-31st, with deep drifting. New Year’s Eve was the coldest for 40 years, with local maxima of -4C.
January 1979. A very cold (-0.4C CET) and snowy month. The last really cold January (average beneath freezing). Much of the south started the month snowbound after the blizzard of December 30-31st. Stithians (Cornwall) could only manage a maximum of -4 on the 1st, after widespread severe frosts; there was even a minimum of -16C in Cornwall on the 1st, the county record for Cornwall. There were some very low maxima were widespread on the 1st, with places as far apart as Exeter and East Anglia unable to go much above -5C. For much of the month there were severe frosts and heavy snowfalls. The record low for Northern Ireland (before December 2010) was set at -17.5C at Magherally (Co. Down) on the 1st. There was heavy snowfall in the northwest and Midlands on the 2nd; a maximum of -11.5. at Burton-on-Trent on the 3rd, in freezing fog, following a minimum of -16C the night before. There was a blizzard on the Channel Islands on the 4th; Torcross (Devon) hit and damaged by very large waves that night. Dense, cold, freezing fog midmonth. It was -24.6C at Carnwath (Strathclyde) on the 13th (possibly 18th) – this was the lowest temperature in the UK in the 70s. There was then a maximum of only -7C at Abbotsinch. There was another severe snowfall on the 23rd in southern England; six inches of snow, followed by freezing rain in London. Even the Scillies had three days of laying snow. Oh for another month like it.
February 1979. There were alternating snowy and mild spells in the south. There was much snow on the 12th as fronts moved northwards into the cold block: there was 15 cm of snow by the evening in the south Pennines. Blizzards. A storm surge hit Portland Bill on the 13th, cutting off the Bill for several hours, and giant waves carrying cars from the seafront car park. The most severe weather of the whole winter struck between the 14-16th. On the 14th heavy snow and cold northeasterlies to easterlies gave blizzards in the east. At midday in Tynemouth the temperature was -3C with a wind of 50 mph. Cold, snow, wind; enormous snow drifts, low visibilities: whiteout! What fun. The 15th was particularly cold and snowy: large difts in the east, with many places cut off, particularly in Lincolnshire. Many parts of the southeast remained below freezing from the 14-20th. Many places in the east, southeast, and Midlands were cut off for several days, with power cuts (which is what I hate most about snow and wind). A cold month overall, although not extraordinarily so (1.2C CET).
March 1979. A stormy, wet month, with some heavy snow in the Midlands and North midmonth. The NE was particularly badly affected in the third week. Snowstorms cut off Newcastle: five days of snow gave 46 cm of cover. 175 mm of rain recorded in the first week at Fort William: three times the monthly avrage!
January 1987. This month saw an exceptional cold spell resulting from an easterly airstream which began in earnest on the 9th, with cold air starting to feed in from the 7th. Before that here was a wet start to the month. Then the maximum at Aviemore was -5C on the 8th and 9th. On the 9th, an anticyclone anchored over Scandinavia forced a depression moved SE over Britain leading to strong NE to E winds across England on the 10th, and bringing exceptionally cold air from an unusually cold Europe.
I remember the forecast from the night before very clearly; the cold was predicted accurately well in advance. The coldest air reached England on the 11th. Maxima on the 12th January were commonly around -6C; -8C across large parts of the south; the day probably was equal to or lower than the previous lowest maximum in London (see also January 1841 and 1867). For many places this was the coldest day of the century.
For example, Warlingham (Surrey) recorded a 12 hour daily maximum of -9.2C, a 24 hour maximum of -90, with minima of -12.4C and -10.0C either side. Quite often it was clear and sunny, but the cold air crossing the warm North Sea led to a very high snowfall on the eastern coast, with the snow starting in the evening: 45 cm of snow settled at Southend, and 50 cm fell even in Cornwall. The Charing Cross to Dover train took 13 hours to get to Ashford.
The highest temperature in Britain on the 12th was +0.1C at the Butt of Lewis; all of mainland Britain remained beneath freezing. The following night was unsurprisingly very cold everywhere, widely beneath -10C, and with -16.0C recorded at Aviemore. There was more heavy snow on the 13th and 14th. There were slightly higher temperatures on the 15th, as the extreme cold slowly eased its grip. A slow thaw began on the 20th. In parts of the south there were 14 consecutive sunless days from the 14th (to the 28th), in many places setting a new “dullness” record. Here are the noon temperatures from Gatwick from the 7th to the 20th: 0, -2, 1, -1, -5, -7, -7, -3, -2, -1, -3, -3, -3, -1.
There was severe frost damage to plants on the Isles of Scilly. The lowest reading of this exeptional spell was -23.3C at Caldecott (Leics.) on the 13th. There was freezing rain in the south Midlands. Generall it was a very dry month – the driest since 1964. This was the last significantly cold month of the century (with +0.8C CET, the last month beneath 1C before 2010).