The blizzard of February 1978 in SW England

Figure 1 – Scenes around Bradninch in February 1978 (courtesy of Warren Radmore)


I must admit I never realised that a blizzard had occurred in February of 1978 in the southwest of England, and at first thought they had it mixed up with February 1979. I was suffering from parochial-itus of course – it’s a similar thing a lot of TV weather presenters come down with, it exhibits itself by them forever going on about London and the Southeast of England at the expense of everywhere else in the country. Overall, February 1978 as a month was cold, but not exceptionally so. The middle two weeks were very cold at times, but the first, and especially the last week were mild. The cold air was initially introduced by an anticyclonic easterly from around the 7th, and further enhanced as a cold pool tracked from central Europe westward across the country between the 10th and 14th. As you can see (fig 2), across the UK as a whole it was joint 12th coldest February since 1910 with a mean temperature of just 1.4°C for the month.

Figure 2 – Data courtesy of the Met Office

The Monthly Weather Report Met Office describes it a lot more succinctly than I can so here it is (fig 3).

Figure 3 – Courtesy of the Met Office

And just for the hell of it, here is my poor imitation of the Weather Log from the Royal Meteorological Society (fig 4).

Figure 4 – Data courtesy of the Met Office & Images courtesy of Wetterzentrale

It’s a shame that the BBC have had to archive the news item (fig 5) of what was probably the biggest weather event to affect the southwest of England since 1963. Archiving it removes the video news item, reduces all images to thumbnail size, and removes the gallery of 16 full size images – just what sense is there in doing that with an event that happened in the memory of many people older than fifty? Surely disk space isn’t that critical down in the BBC archives these days? In a complete aside – we may have all the fancy ways of videoing and imaging extreme weather events, but if these events are not properly archived we will simply end up in a similar state to what happened in our parents day, with a shoe box full of old photo’s stashed away in the attic.

Figure 5 – Courtesy of the BBC

There is a book about the event called ‘The Blizzard of 78: The Snowstorm That Buried Dorset‘ by Mark Ching (fig 6) which although out of print, is available from Abe books second-hand at £11.28, although the only review on Amazon about is a little disparaging about both the quality and the price.

Figure 6 – Courtesy of Amazon

So back to the events of February 1978 with the help of a few weather maps that I have reconstituted with the help of some NCEP reanalysis data.

Figure 7

So it looks like an occlusion was trying to get into the far west of Cornwall during Wednesday (fig 7), but was being held back by the cold air over the rest of the country. There is already a fair snow cover in places further north, probably as a result of that cold pool earlier in the week.

Figure 8

Early on Thursday, a small triple point low formed and ran into northwest France, so the warm air never made any inroads, and the cold air reasserted itself as pressure started to rise (fig 8). An area of snow over southeast England was extending westward during Thursday. North of latitude 51° it remained cold and frosty, with some freezing fog in Lincolnshire.

Figure 9

Even on Friday, there was still an extensive area of snow across the southern areas with a light to moderate northeast wind (fig 9). Further north it was again frosty and very cold, with some freezing fog in places.

Figure 10

This is start of the blizzard as far as I can see, with warm air and a low-lying to the southwest of the Scilly Isles. Wind speeds had increased to strong or near gale inland across much of the south, with storm force winds off the coast of south Cornwall and Devon. There was an extensive area of moderate snow associated with the frontal system. Take a look at the Yeovilton observation for 06 UTC (fig 10), a 30 knot mean wind, moderate snow and -2°C. Meanwhile, north of latitude 52° it remained mainly dry, windy and very cold.

Figure 11

It look like it snowed for much of Sunday in the southwest, but the wind had abated a little bit and wasn’t quite as strong. Warm air and a clearance had tucked into northwest France by the end of the afternoon (fig 11). Meanwhile further north temperatures were already below freezing in a penetrating frost. I would add more charts, but you know as well as I do, that the warm air would eventually win out, as it always does, it’s hard to believe that all happened 39 years ago this week. Here are some plotted grids observations for the week from Exeter (fig 12), Yeovilton (fig 13), and my old station, Binbrook (fig 14), to give you a flavour of the weather.

Figure 12 – Exeter Airport
Figure 13 – Yeovilton
Figure 14 – Binbrook

Here are a couple of images of what Minehead in North Somerset looked like.

Figure 15 – Courtesy of Minehead Online
Figure 16 – Courtesy of Minehead Online

I’ve tried in vain to find any mention of the February 18/19 blizzard in the southwest in the Weather magazine to no avail. The search on the Wiley site is not good, so it may be mentioned somewhere. All that surprises me, because I thought it would have been a well documented event lying as it does south of Watford, but parochial-itus is obviously at it again it would seem. Finally here is a table of snow depth reported on Sunday the 19th of February at 18 UTC (fig 17). It’s from the SYNOP reports so is fairly limited in the number of available reporting stations, as always when dealing with severely drifted snow, it’s more of a guide than anything else.

Figure 17

And finally, here’s a snippet from the Snow Survey of Great Britain for that particular month (fig 18). It appears, as you might expect, that hillier stations across Dorset, Somerset and Devon came out on top when it comes to snow depth, with nearly 3 feet reported at Nettlecombe, I wonder how Dunkeswell fared?  I hope you liked this ramble down memory lane, it may not look much, but at the moment it’s one of the best resources to find out what happened this week 39 years ago. If I do find any additional material about it, especially images, I’ll make sure that I tag them on the end.

Figure 18 – Courtesy of the Met Office