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“.
December started quite wet, then mostly dry later. The second half of the month was quieter with a lot of High Pressure influence. Rainfall total was 41mm, which is only 72% of normal for December.
In late afternoon/evening of 15th December there was a fall of snow/sleet/freezing rain. A right hogs breakfast with strong south easterly winds. Precipitation total was 8mm overnight. It was all gone by morning as temperatures rose.
Temperature was well above normal for Durham, but not as high an anomally as the CET area, which recorded the 15th warmest December. In Durham, the mean was +1.6 degC above normal. The warmest day of the month was the last at 9.2 degC.
I had a data outage on Christmas Eve, resulting in one day of missing data. It did have a frost, so the total for the month was 6.
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.
This list has been compiled from CET records after we experienced the coldest December for more than a century in Durham. In a climate that has shown a seemingly inexorable rise in temperature, December 2010 came as a huge shock.
Christmas Day 2010 ranks third in a series going back to 1772, marginally behind 1830.
Coldest Christmas Days
-10.8 degC 1796
-6.6 degC 1830
-5.9 degC 2010
-5.8 degC 1878
-5.1 degC 1779
November 2010 also contained one of the coldest ever days recorded in that calendar month, coming in at -4.0 degC on 28th. It also ranks 3rd in all-time cold November days.