TWO Buzz

Weather news and views from Brian Gaze.

More memorable weather

Posted Wed 6th September 09:45

In my last update I discussed the most memorable periods of weather I can recall between when I was born (February 1970) and the mid 1980s. Here I'll move on into the 1990s. 

January 1987 - the big freeze

The 12th - 14th January 1987 was apparently the coldest spell of weather in southern England since January 1740. On the 12th temperatures in parts of the home counties didn't rise above -8C (18F) and the bitter chill was accompanied by heavy snow in much of the country.

1987 Sheerness snow 06

Sheerness snow, January 1987

I lived in York at the time and my recollection starts on Sunday 11th January when I was helping deliver newspapers to outlying villages in the Yorkshire Wolds. We set off from York at 5:30am but I can't remember it being particularly cold. By mid-day the temperatures had dropped and heavy snow was falling. It settled readily on the roads and I worried about the return journey. Nonetheless we finished dropping off the newspapers by 1pm and managed to get back to York, where if I recall collectively there was less snow. 

During the following days the snow accumulated and didn't thaw as sub zero temperatures persisted. Here's where my recollection becomes more hazy. By Thursday I think the cold had eased slightly and there was a slow  thaw during the days as longer sunny spells developed. Nonetheless there were further heavy snow showers and it remained very cold for several days. By Sunday cold and gray conditions had set in and during the following days a thaw set in with daytime temperatures several degrees above freezing.

Undoubtedly a notable freeze even in York, but the most severe conditions were in the south east of England. Also the fact that it went out with a whimper rather than a bang means some of the details have become hazy for me.

Record Cold Spell of 1987

October 1987 - the Great Storm

Why a storm notable for its destructive power should be called great is beyond me. I suppose its the same logic for calling WW1 the Great War. Swap the word great for terrible in each instance for a more fitting description. 

On the 16th October 1987 I woke up and switched on the TV. Oddly the BBC were broadcasting from what appeared to be a very parred down studio. This was the time of the Cold War and my first thoughts were that war had broken out overnight and the BBC had switched to an emergency studio to keep broadcasting.

Aftermath of the Great Storm of 1987

Storm damage in London

As it turned out the south had been hit by a monster storm but areas further north were more or less unscathed. At least 22 people were killed in England and France. Winds gusts of 135mph were record at Pointe Du roc, Granville, France and 120mph at Shoreham-by-Sea in England.

The UK Met Office became embroiled in a storm of its own. A few hours before the storm hit the former BBC weather forecaster Michael Fish famously said on air, "Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way... well, if you're watching, don't worry, there isn't!" Controversy raged on long after the storm became history. I believe that major changes and advances were made in forecasting techniques. For example,  an increasing reliance on ensembles rather than deterministic models.

The October 1987 Great Storm

UKMO and the Great Storm of 1987

February 1991

My first degree is in economics and 1991 was the year in which I completed it. It was also the year of my 21st birthday and perhaps the last nationwide freeze of the 20th Century. As I mentioned I was born in February 1970 and I'm told it was snowing when I was taken home from the hospital. I'm not sure whether that's true but I'm not going to risk spoiling the story by checking out the facts 47 years later. By February 1991 snow on my birthday seemed to be nothing unusual because we'd had a run of cold winters. Therefore I didn't appreciate that the snowy spells we'd had through the late 1970s and 1980s were not the norm.

Snow affected parts of the UK at the start of December but but in general winter 1990/91 didn't amount to much until February. During the early part of the month heavy snow showers spread westwards across the UK in a bitterly cold easterly flow. As a student I was living in the north east of England and remember walking out after a lecture to be confronted by a powder snow blizzard. As my 21st birthday approached there were indications of the freeze breaking but it didn't. I think there another heavy snowfall and when I took the train back to York it was a case of traveling through a winter wonderland. The snow in parents garden in York must have been about 30cm deep. What a great present for a 21st birthday!      

PS: I think this was the cold spell which brought the "wrong type of snow" for British Rail.

Next time...

In many ways February 1991 marked the end of an era for me. I would enter the world of work in a couple of years time and cold winters would become as rare as hen's teeth. Not a good combination many would say but as you get older your perspective on the weather changes, just like it does with other things. In place of the cold came the blistering heat...

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