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).

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

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

Lake District weather for hillwalkers

Image 1 – Courtesy of

I read about a very informative website for hillwalkers in the Lake District the other day in a Guardian article. The website is called, and each day through the Winter someone from a team of volunteers legs it up Helvellyn and writes a report about the conditions that they found under foot, the guys that do this must know Helvellyn like the back of their hand and probably could do it with their eyes closed (well not Swirral edge perhaps) because they don’t seem to miss a single day! It reminds me of the Victorian meteorologist Clement Lindley Wragge – what a character and what a life – who would climb Ben Nevis each day (but only in summer) before the observatory was eventually built. Anyway I digress, after the report of conditions ascending the 3,120 feet to the top of Helvellyn, there is a full weather forecast for the next couple of days with extended outlook, and a list of all the hazards that you might face. If you do walk the fells in the Lake district, then you should bookmark this site.

Why so little snow at Scottish ski resorts this season?

Figure 1 – Courtesy of WinterHighland

There are obviously two key ingredients for a good skiing season anywhere in the world, and they are:

  • Air temperatures less than 0°C for as long as possible
  • Plenty of precipitation.

The lack of snow in Scotland during this Autumn and Winter are a result not only of it being much warmer than average (fig 2), but also due to the fact that it’s been comparatively dry. In fact the last four months October to January have been the driest four-month period (October to January) since around 1976 in Eastern Scotland, with only around two-thirds of the usual amount of precipitation during that time (fig 4). In the same period last year there was over 789 mm of rain compared with just 317mm this year. Although of course much less precipitation falls at Aviemore than does over the Cairngorms, the hyetograph for Aviemore (fig 3) does illustrate just how much dry weather there has been. The lower than average rainfall is the result of more anticyclonic weather than usual, resulting in higher than average surface pressure, which translates into fewer storms and fewer active frontal systems.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4 – Data courtesy of UKMO

Global temperatures drop back

Figure 1

The 12 month moving average of Global temperatures has fallen back in the last few months, after climbing quite sharply for the last four years or so. I’ve included a plot of both the CRUTEM4 and GISS monthly series as you can see (fig 1). I like to use a 12 month moving average because it’s a simple way of removing any seasonality, I’ve added a linear trend for both even though it’s probably not correct or in any way scientific. The linear trends are not aligned because the Americans use the 1961-1990 long-term averages to calculate their anomalies, whilst the British in their wisdom still use the 1951-1980 averages. The rate of increase in global warming is higher in the GISS series during the last 50 years at +0.292°C per decade, as opposed to the slightly lower +0.273°C using the CRUTEM4 series. For a bit of fun (yes I am weird), I thought that I would overlay the El Niño events of recent years (reddish vertical bands). I did read somewhere, that there was a strong correlation between global temperatures and ENSO, so I thought that I’d see if there was. Well that does seem to be true in some events, but not all. The 1991-1992 El Niño for instance, although the cooling that did occur then may have been due to the dust released in the Mount Pinatubo eruption at around that time. Talking of volcanic events the next chart (fig 2) is for the last 30 years and shows all volcanic events during that time, although I’ve only include the ones that scored 4 or higher on the VEI scale. You’ll also notice that the linear trend for both series is much lower during the last 30 years than it was in the last 50 years in the first chart. I have written about this before with regard to linear trends and the CET series, it can be misleading and I’m not going to bother to go into it all over again.

The Sheffield Gale – 16 February 1962

Figure 1

It’s fifty-five years ago to the day – Friday the 16th of February 1962 – that the Sheffield gale occurred. This was the synoptic situation on the morning of the Sheffield Gale (fig 1). I recreated the chart by scanning in the SYNOP observations from the Daily Weather Report [DWR] that you can freely download from the Met Office, a truly wonderful resource. To unlock the SYNOP observations that are in the DWR, I had to carefully scan the text using some OCR software to breathe some life back into these lines of numbers. That will only give you 52 weather reports, which isn’t that many, and you have to cater for the fact that the location of quite a few of them will be missing because they closed many years ago. Just 52 observations around the UK won’t give you the bigger picture, so I had to use NCEP reanalysis data to provide a background field of MSLP values. This is the plotted chart in a bit more detail (fig 2), and as you can see the nearest station to Sheffield is Finningley which at 06 UTC was reporting a only reporting a mean of 18 knots. The one thing you will notice from the chart is that there are no reported gusts plotted, that’s because back then there weren’t the fancy 9 groups that we use nowadays. If I remember correctly, back then a gust of in knots was tagged onto the end of the SYNOP and reported as GST35=, so the gust just didn’t get included in the DWR which is a great pity.

Figure 2

Here are a couple of newspaper clippings from the time.

Figure 3 – Courtesy of the Star

Figure 4 – Courtesy of The Times (17th February 1962)

Figure 5  History of the Meteorological Office
By Malcolm Walker

Usually the Geophysical Memoirs published by the Met Office are on the whole quite bland affairs, but surprisingly memoir number 108 isn’t. Geophysical Memoirs No. 108 is entitled ‘Gales in Yorkshire in February 1962‘ and is edited by C. J. M. Aanensen. The title is a little bit ambiguous as far as titles go, because the gales did extend a little further south into Derbyshire, and further north into Durham and Northumberland, but the city of Sheffield was far by worst affected. The report itself is very comprehensive and readable, and is now free to download from the Met Office Library.

Here’s the trace from the Dines pressure-tube anemograph at Weston Park Museum in Sheffield. Digressing a little at this point, I always regret not buying that very same anemograph when they came to scrap it in 1980, but at the time I was on strike from British Steel and living off what little savings we had, so I couldn’t justify the few hundred pounds that it probably would have taken – Oh dear, how sad, nevermind. I was always fascinated by that anemograph whenever I visited the Weston Park museum as a child, that and the bee hive, which had one side of glass so that you could see the bee’s at work, were the two best things in there.

Figure 6 – Courtesy of the Met Office © Crown Copyright

The highest gust of 84 knots (96.7 mph) occurred at about 0610 UTC from around 280° (fig 6). The chart that they include in the report for UTC (fig 7) is refreshingly similar to the one that I concocted in figure 1.

Figure 7 – Courtesy of the Met Office © Crown Copyright

Why was it so windy?

Well as the report concludes:

The gale of 16 February 1962 was not an outstanding gale when its effects over the country as a whole are considered. However it was noteworthy in that the wind speeds generally to the lee of the Pennines were comparable with those on the Lancashire and Cheshire coasts. In the latter areas there was little damage because buildings there are constructed to withstand gales of such magnitude, which are not infrequent in these coastal areas. To the lee of the Pennines however gales of such magnitude are infrequent and buildings are often constructed to a lighter scale. Consequently when such gales do occur the damage may be very great, as it was in the Sheffield-Leeds area.

Consideration of the temperature and wind structure in the upper air shows that according to modern theory lee waves were possible on 16 February. The outstanding features of the upper air were:

(i) a marked and persistent inversion at a low level, and
(ii) a constant wind direction (290 degrees) in the vertical with a marked increase in speed with height.

If you’ve read the report you may have noticed that it doesn’t like to jump to any rash conclusions, when it says that according to the theory of the time “lee waves were possible”. They certainly were lee waves present, and earlier in the same report they had evidence that they were:

The occurrence of strong lee waves on 16 February 1962 was confirmed by Captain R. H. Ayres, the pilot of a B.K.S. Bristol Freighter aircraft which flew from Cambridge (1035 GMT) to Dublin (1355 GMT) on a track crossing the southern Pennines a little south of Sheffield. Because of the strong head winds the flight occupied 3 hours 20 minutes instead of the usual 2 hours. Although the aircraft was made to dive through the up-currents and climb at maximum power through the down-currents, the vertical currents were so strong (estimated 2000 feet per minute) that the pilot was unable to maintain his nominal height of 8000 feet and was obliged to inform Air Traffic Control of this. During these manoeuvres the aircraft’s airspeed varied over the range 80 to 175 knots. Captain Ayres reported that the sky was covered with an impressive display of wave clouds.

They even did the maths and even produced streamlines across the Pennines for the day in question (fig 8). Earlier in the report they did hit upon the answer as far as I can see. It was all to do with the strength and direction of the gradient (geostrophic wind of ~100 knots), the temperature gradient and inversion in the lower atmosphere, associated with a cold front that was racing across the country.

The mechanism by which this occurred is obscure. However, as will be seen later, the severity of the gales at Sheffield is thought to be partly due to the lee-wave effect and the persistence of the marked inversion at a relatively low height is therefore of interest. Had the cold front been a normal one the inversion would have risen fairly sharply after the cold-front passage and the period of severity of the storm at Sheffield would have been considerably lessened.

Figure 8 – Courtesy of the Met Office © Crown Copyright

How much damage was there in Sheffield?

This is how the report summarised the damage to the City of Sheffield from the gale.

Final analysis of damage.—The severity of the gale in the Sheffield area can be judged from the following final analysis of damage to dwellings:
(i) Number of buildings damaged beyond repair—98, including 69 prefabricated buildings.
(ii) Number of dwellings severely damaged with major repairs required—248.
(iii) Number of dwellings moderately damaged—34,200.
(iv) Number of dwellings with minor damage—66,954.
(v) Total number of dwellings damaged in one way or another—101,500.
(vi) Total number of dwellings in the area—161,000.

Personal memory of the gale

I still remember being awakened by the howling wind early that Friday, and as I was getting dressed for School, hearing the sound of the slab that sat on the top of our chimney, being flipped up, and the noise as it slid down our tiled roof, before crashing into the cast iron gutter and ending up in the front garden next to our TV aerial.

Further Information

  • There is no specific Wiki article on what I think of as the ‘Sheffield’ Gale, which is surprising. Although three people were killed and around 250 injured in the gale in this country, the storm did go on to cause even more havoc on the other side of the North Sea. It occurred at the same time as high spring tides, and a huge storm surge breached the dykes in West Germany, drowning 315 people. In Europe the storm was known as Vincinette.

Figure 9 – Courtesy of Wikipedia

  • Philip Eden did write a short article about the Sheffield Gale for the Royal Meteorological Society.
  • I can’t find any mention of it in the Met Magazine during 1962 although there was a very interesting article about ‘The problem of day-darkness over London’ in the December edition – fascinating.
  • The Weather Magazine also seems devoid of anything about the Sheffield Gale or the storm surge that killed 315 people in West Germany. The Weather log for February 1962 does include a line about it, which I think sums up quite nicely the north-south divide that existed back then.

Figure 10 – Excerpt Courtesy of the Royal Met Society

It might come to a bit of a shock to whoever wrote that Weather Log back in March 1962, that the ‘town‘ as he or she so quaintly puts it, was in fact a city, and had been a city since 1893, and with a population (in 1961) of 574,915 it was the 5th largest City by population in the UK if memory serves. I don’t know why there was so little written about it surprises me because Sheffield has always been the poor relation, perhaps it’s the Geography and where it lies, but more probably it was, and is still down to money.

To be fair, perhaps the Weather Magazine and the Met Mag didn’t bother including articles about the gale because it had been so well covered in the Geophysical Memoirs, I personally don’t believe that for one minute, because that report didn’t appear very quickly, and the one I’ve downloaded wasn’t received at the Met Office in Edinburgh till the end of 1964. But it’s good to see that they didn’t miss the finer details of the events concerning the ‘Great Storm’ of October 1987 though.

Finally here is a map of maximum gusts in knots (reduced to 33 feet above the ground) for the UK on that day (fig 11). I think it would have just about merited being a named storm event if it happened today!

Figure 11 – Courtesy of the Met Office © Crown Copyright

There were two interesting things that I did read in the report:

  • How many RAF stations didn’t have an anemograph back in 1962, and had to use the dial to get a ten minute mean direction and speed. How the hell do you get a ten minute mean in a gale like that? Well there is there is of course the obvious one, you make yourself a nice cup of tea, you position your chair just right and keep a beady eye on the dials for ten minutes, ignoring all phone calls and the flight crew that’s just walked into the office!
  • The other thing was that gales produced by the “resonant lee wave effect” will happen again (~150 years), and have also happened before and been overlooked. They mention two specific dates that show strong similarities to the 16th December 1962, event, one on the 22nd of December 1894, and a more recent one between the 1st and 2nd of March 1956.

A new way of looking at Central England Temperatures

Figure 1 – Data courtesy of the Met Office

Ever wondered what looking at the CET for every week in your life would look like? Well, the heat map above (fig 1) does just that, it looks very formidable at first glance, but if you take a closer look it’s just full of information about temperatures of England since 1958. Each cell represents the mean temperature anomaly for each of the fifty-two weeks in a year, so each row represents a single year. I think splitting the year into weeks means is an excellent way of perusing the CET series, you can easily pick out the exceptionally cold or warm period since the daily CET started back in 1772, if you used a longer period such as a month, these shorter spells wouldn’t be visible. The application can display heat maps of anomalies (fig 1) or mean temperatures (fig 2), as well as extreme high maximums or low minimums (fig 3).

Figure 2 – Data courtesy of the Met Office

Figure 3 – Data courtesy of the Met Office

It was easy enough to add some extra code to find the extreme warmest and coldest week from all years in the series and highlight them in the grid (fig 4).

Figure 4 – Data courtesy of the Met Office

It also added functionality to display terciles, quintiles and centiles (fig 5), but they don’t like quite yet, because I don’t think I’ve perfected the colours I use in displaying them. Anyway, I’m sure someone will let me know what I’m doing wrong. The only trouble is with the size of these heat maps, is that I can only display them back to 1958, so until I get that 27″ monitor I keep promising myself, an even bigger heat map will have to wait.

Figure 5 – Data courtesy of the Met Office


Record lowest Antarctic sea ice extent

Figure 1 – Data courtesy of NSIDC

It’s always been a question of when, rather than if the Antarctic sea ice extent record would be broken this season, but finally the 2.246 million square kilometres for the 12th February (fig 1), has dipped just a fraction lower than the 2.264 of the 22nd of September in 1997, to break the lowest minimum record in the satellite series that started in 1978. Earlier in the season it looked like the extent would be as much as 30% below the long-term minimum, but the decline did slow, and at the moment (12th February) it’s only 25.8% lower than average for that date. The decline in Antarctic sea ice is even more spectacular, considering that it was just over two years ago that they were at record high levels (fig 2), and the decline is set to continue for another four weeks before the minima is reached, so a sub 2 million minima is a distinct possibility.

Figure 2 – Data courtesy of NSIDC

I notice that the National Geographic were able to do an article about the record yesterday even before the figures were released by the NSIDC, which is fair enough, because if it wasn’t for the Americans, there wouldn’t be a SII anyway. And finally, here is this season overlaid on the previous 38 or so, to put it into some kind of perspective (fig 3).

Figure 3 – Data courtesy of NSIDC

Spring has sprung…

Image 1 – Courtesy of the Met Office and EUMETSAT

Figure 2

Despite some quite strong easterly winds across the whole of the British Isles (fig 2), temperatures in the southwest were around 10°C warmer at 15 UTC today than they were yesterday at the same time (fig 3). At Exeter and Chivenor temperatures this afternoon have been close to the 14°C mark, and it really did feel like spring had suddenly arrived today, in what has been a lovely sunny day down here in darkest Devon (fig 1). I see the same can’t be said for eastern districts, where temperatures this afternoon seem to be closer to 4 or 5°C.

Figure 3


Australian Heat Wave

Figure 1

I was a bit under whelmed at the temperatures in Australia when I generated this graphic of air temperatures for 06 UTC this morning (fig 1). I had been reading about a severe heat wave across there, but it didn’t look too different to any typical hot summer’s day in Australia. I realise there are drought conditions and wildfires breaking out, but that’s fast becoming the norm for a climate that lies approximately between 11 and 40° south these days. The sun is so powerful at these latitudes that the temperature fairly shoots up into the high 30’s Celsius during the morning, and even in coastal cities like Sydney (fig 2), and if the breeze is off the land like it has been, there is no relief from a welcoming sea breeze. Here is how they are reporting it in Australia (fig 2), perhaps the Aussies have the same kind of Daily Mail mentality when it comes to reporting extreme weather.

Figure 2 – Courtesy of

And here’s the thermograms (hourly plotted temperatures) for the last 30 days from both Sydney and Adelaide (figs 3 & 4).

Figure 3

Figure 4

I also managed to trace the SYNOP observations mentioned in the news report for Ivanhoe in New South Wales, you can see the 46.9°C in the thermogram (fig 5).

Figure 5


Is St Hilary’s day the coldest day of the year?

Figure 1 – Courtesy of Wikipedia (By Chordboard)

In weather folklore there is a widespread belief that St Hilary’s day, which falls on the 13th of January, is the coldest day of the year. But is this true? We sent our meteorological reporter xmetman out to check the CET series, in an attempt to find the truth. And what did he conclude after analysing the daily CET series back to 1878? Well, the short answer to the question is no, the 13th of January is not statistically the coldest day of the year in the CET series, it’s close, I make the mean minimum for that day is 0.96°C, but another Saint’s day, St Valentines on the 14th of February is, with a mean minimum of 0.67°C. The chance of frost on the 13th of January in the 137 year record since 1879 is 37.1%, whilst the chance of frost on the 14th of February is 40.3% the highest frequency of frost in the whole year. It’s also interesting to see that the dip in temperature in the lower graph (fig 2), ties in quite nicely with the first of Alexander Buchan’s cold spell s (February 7th to 14th) that he found in 1867. I think with the weather turning milder, a frost this year, might be pushing it a bit in Central England tonight.

Figure 2 – Data courtesy of the Met Office