Figure 1 – The garden of our old terrace house in Louth (which stood up to the Louth flood of 20 May 1920 by the way) sometime on the afternoon of January 12th 1987
It’s thirty years today that the cold spell of January 1987 started in earnest, so I thought that I’d put a piece together with my recollection of it scant as they are. It’s a shame that things like the Internet, WordPress and digital photography weren’t around back then otherwise I wouldn’t have needed to bother…
I remember Monday the 12th of January 1987 quite distinctly. I was due on a 12 hour day shift at RAF Binbrook that started at 8 am, so I usually left home around 7.30 AM to get there in the car. There maybe was 10 cm of snow on the roads in Louth where we lived when I left, but I managed to negotiate the road up and onto the Wolds, to a place called North Elkington which is at almost 400 feet above sea level. The wind, which had been quite light till then had started to pick up and was lifting all the snow of the fields and dropping it onto the road between the hedges. I did manage to get a small way up the road to Binbrook, before having to stop for a snow plough coming in the opposite direction. With the driver watching, I managed to get the car turned round and follow him back out. It was a brand new Fiat Uno and I had only recently passed my test, so driving on snow was a new experience to me.
The observer that I couldn’t relieve was on duty till the following Saturday, over 5 days, although I would have thought the Sergeants mess might have helped him out with meals through the week.
By the end of the afternoon back home in Louth, we had over a foot of the fluffiest lightest snow that I have ever seen in this country, falling from a succession of moderate snow showers that occasionally merged into longer periods of heavy snow. There are not many memorable weather memories that stick with me but that one did, bear with me as I make a quick of them!
- The Sheffield gale of February 1962
- Vague memories of the frost and snow of winter 1962/63.
- The glazed ice that brought down lots of branches from trees and the TV mast at nearby Emley Moor on the 19th March 1969
- The snow that stopped cricket at Buxton on the 2nd of June 1975
- The great summer of 1976 whilst working in Schleswig-Holstein, and coming back home in Autumn looking like a tanned Tarzan, and being stared at because I went into town wearing shorts.
- The snowstorms of January, February and March 1979 in Sheffield, in our flat above a green grocers shop.
- The intense cold of December 1981 and walking to and back from work at Tinsley Park, watching steam rising up from manhole covers just like in does in Chicago.
- The night shift at Binbrook on the 9th July 1984, and the high level thunderstorms that occurred over an airfield cover in shallow fog, and that would later set York Minster alight.
- The intense cold and snow of January 1987.
- Being caught in a cloud burst walking home from work and being absolutely drenched in less than 30 seconds (who knows when that happened).
- The Bracknell flood of 7th of May 2000, when I realised that you could still get flooded even though you live on a hill.
- The hot spell of August 2003, and particularly Monday the 11th on the day we left Bracknell bound for Devon.
- The very cold December of 2010, and how for once Devon looked like with snow cover.
Only thirteen? Is the list so short because I have a bad memory, or maybe I’m hard to impress? Anyway I digress, back to January 1987 and a zoomed in chart for 06 UTC (fig 2).
The table of snow depths for 06 UTC snow depths on Monday morning (fig 3) show Jubilee Corner at the top with 37 cm. It’s difficult to question the 37 cm with all the snow fell overnight and the previous day, but I think it may have been closer to 27 or even 17 cm judging by the later reports from there.
As far as I’m concerned, there has never been a weather event in my memory that was as cold as the first few days of this week back in January 1987, and I’ve seen lots of observations and plotted charts from cold weather events of the past for the UK. This was just an intensely cold easterly air stream that blew in over across a comparatively warm North Sea, and yes December of 1981 did have lower temperatures, but that was under conditions of perfect radiative cooling on a deep cover of snow, and not directly comparable to this. Zooming out a little, this chart (fig 4) gives you a better way to visualise exactly what was going on across the North Sea and the near Continent.
Here’s the chart for 18 UTC on Monday (fig 5), the -16° at Cottesmore shows just how cold it was across the country that day. I generate these charts using observational data that I purchased from Weather Graphics. The SYNOPs are reconstituted in some way and occasionally omit climate and special groups, but overall the quality is good, and a lot better than trying to OCR data from the Daily Weather Report.
Here’s the zoomed in chart for 18 UTC (fig 6).
The coldest place that day in the 06-18 reports tabulated reports (fig 7) was Cottesmore with a maximum of -8.2°C but with a whole host of stations across the East of the country not far behind.
You might want to bookmark or even take a copy of the next chart (fig 8) because of the -6°C temperature at St Mary’s. It’s something the older ones amongst us like me are unlikely to see again in our lifetime.
To accompany that chart, here are the 18-06 UTC minima from Tuesday morning (fig 9). Before you ask – the reason why the actual temperature is -16°C in 18 UTC plotted chart for Cottesmore SYNOP (fig 6) and -15.5° in the 06 UTC tabulated list is because for some reason Weather Graphics omit the precision in the hourly temperatures but not in the extremes.
Here’s the chart for 18 UTC on the Tuesday (fig 10). By this time the cold pool had transferred across to Ireland but most, if not all of the country and nearby Europe had a good deep snow cover, and I see a -22° over what was West Germany even well before midnight.
Unfortunately the maximum temperature 06-18 (fig 11) from St Mary’s wasn’t reported, but I suspect it had been sub-zero all day.
These are the overnight minimums 18-06 UTC (fig 12) across the British Isles and the near Continent of Wednesday morning, with every station reporting a frost, even the Butt of Lewis.
I could go on till the weekend with more charts and stuff, but the sad inevitable thing about every cold spell be it cold or hot, is that they do have to come to an end sooner or later, and that was true of this event. This one gradually warmed up as an intense high pressure built over the country later the following week, and milder air spread in on the westerly flow around its northern flank. Having said that though the remainder of January did remain quite cold as this graph of daily CET for the winter of 1986-87 indicates (fig 13).
I did have to adjust the code to display a table of greatest snow depth (fig 14) from any of the main synoptic hours for that cold week, to list and rank the greatest snow depth, so there are duplicates, but they should be for a different day and time. Surprisingly to me the greatest depth was at Guernsey Airport, but with the amount of drifting and compaction as it slowly warmed during the week, you have to take these values with a pinch of salt (pardon the very bad pun).
The greatest snow depth is very dependent on their being a level depth of snow to measure without any significant drifting, which is not easy as most of my readers will probably only know too well. I for one know that there was significant amount of drifting over the Wolds in Lincolnshire (see fig 19), and when I finally returned to work at Binbrook on the Saturday to relieve the observer who had been on duty from the Monday, I remember having to climb an eight foot mountain of snow and ice that had been bulldozed to clear the pan where the Lightnings lined up to get to the Stevenson screen. The enclosure was around a ¼ of a mile or more from the office, It was the first time that I had ever to stoop down to take the readings.
Hopefully the following plotted 1000-500 hPa partial thickness and thermal wind charts (figs 15-17) will give you another idea of just how deep that cold air was. As you can see the cold pool drifted east west during the 12th and 13th of January 1987. I plotted and drew these charts up on the Saturday following the Monday if I remember correctly, and kept a copy of them for 30 years although they’re getting a bit indecipherable now though.
I never annotated this copy of a satellite fax chart that I made (fig 18), but by the look of it, it’s for sometime on the Monday.
Figure 19 (I can’t put an exact date to this photo)
I’ve added some additional information from The Met Office – I hope they don’t mind – which will bolster up some of the things I’ve said and add additional information that I couldn’t. Here’s an extract (fig 20) for the month of January from the The Snow Survey of Great Britain that you can access from the Met Office.
Figure 20 – Courtesy of the Met Office © Crown Copyright
Very luckily, the Daily Weather Summary [DWR] which started in 1981, has also has been digitised by the Met Office (thank you so much), and provides partial thickness charts for each day prepared by the old London Weather Centre [LWC]. It’s such a great shame that today’s version of the DWS contain no aerological charts whatsoever. So I’ve included a couple of LWC charts for the 12th and 13th to compare with the three that I plotted and see the cold advection.
Figure 21 – Courtesy of the Met Office © Crown Copyright
Figure 22 – Courtesy of the Met Office © Crown Copyright
I did have a look in the Meteorological Magazine for the rest of 1987, and rather disappointedly found nothing about the cold spell, but then again it was always that kind of publication, which died not long after, but it was usually readable and interesting. The Weather magazine also had little coverage of the event as far I can see, although I did find an article by Roger Brugge in the May 1987 edition entitled ‘Low daytime temperatures over England and Wales on 12 January 1987‘ which was informative, but I think that the title was just a little understated, with temperatures of -6°C during the day at St Mary’s it could have been a little more catchy!
As a complete aside to all this January 1987 malarkey: It’s no wonder I lost interest in the Weather magazine during the 1980’s. Perhaps it was because they’re dependent on contributors to write articles about extreme weather events like this, or maybe they thought that one short article would cover it. To me the cold spell of January was just as remarkable a weather event as the October storm that occurred later in that year, but received very little coverage in comparison. I notice that recently the Weather magazine has become a lot more proactive, with a special article about the exceptional warmth and rainfall events of December 2015. If I’d have been the editor of Weather in 1987, I think I’d have made a little bit more effort to record the events of what was quite an exceptional cold spell for posterity.