UK Weather Review for the last Millennium
We are now well thirteen years into the new millennium and the 20th century is becoming a distant memory, however here at Mendip Weather we love to look back at past weather records and thought a review of the weather for the last millennium was well over due.
The main problem with reviewing the weather for the last thousand years is the shear lack of data, for the most part the day to day weather was ignored, detailed temperature records only started in England from the mid 17thcentury. There are other data sources such as proxy temperature records from tree rings, lake sediments, and ice cores, however accurate day to day weather information is missing and it wasn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries that detailed and accurate meteorological observations have been made and kept.
What we do have is a few snippets of data from historical newspaper articles, from books and a variety of other sources. So if you thought that that hurricane of 87 was bad or the winter of 62/63 bitter, well there have been more severe storms and winters over the last thousand years.
The coldest winter of the last millennium was the winter of 1683/84 which started in early November and continued right through to mid March. Winters from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century were particularly harsh and have become known as the Little Ice Age complete with frost fairs on the Thames and ice flows off of the southern coast of England. Winter 1683 to 84 might have been severe in terms of depth of cold and snow, but it is certainly not the longest, that accolade goes to the winter of 1623 with snow on the ground from late October right through to May the following year.
Colder still was winter 1794 when the mercury fell to -21c in London, the Rivers Severn and Thames froze, frost fairs returned as the average temperature reached an all-time low, not even the cold of 1963 could bet the chill of that year.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow in the bleak mid winter of 1839, in fact conditions had deteriorated so much that Britain experienced it’s only recorded avalanche that Christmas. Snow had fallen on the 22nd of December 1839 a few days before Christmas. On the 23rd a voracious gale whipped up the snow into huge drifts. A slight thaw on Christmas Eve resulted in the only recorded avalanche in Great Britain in recent history. The snow buried South Street, Lewes killing eight people. Today there is little evidence of such a tragedy apart from the name of the pub that sits under the slope and is named ‘The Snowdrop’.
The hurricane of 1987 has become legendary but it is by no means the only ‘hurricane’ of the last millennium let alone the most severe. October 1091, June 1258, 1624 and the Burns Night storm of 1990 had hurricane force winds comparable to the October 1987 storm. But the greatest and most powerful title goes to the great tempest of 26th November 1703 which brought a storm surge up across the Somerset Levels, and leveled a chimney at the Bishops Palace at Bath and Wells killing the then; Bishop Kidder. The 1703 might have been the most powerful but it was certainly not unusual as some 6 major storms tracked across the country between 1700 and 1720.
The tempest of 1703 was extreme but it was not the worst and most destructive, step forward the North Sea flood of February 1953, one of the most devastating natural disasters ever recorded in the United Kingdom. Over 1,600 km of coastline and sea walls were breached, inundating 1,000 km² of land. Flooding forced 30,000 people to be evacuated from their homes, and 25,000 properties were seriously damaged. The surge raced south through the North Sea driven on by gale force winds and low pressure. The flood worsened the further south the surge was pushed, as the coastlines of England and continental Europe narrowed and the water become shallower the height of the flood increased, inundating the low countries and eastern counties of England. The UK total death toll is estimated at 531.
Finally onto the driest and warmest years category, many people still remember the remarkable summer of 1976, however there are drier years within the instrumental record, 1715 saw no rainfall in England and officially August 1990 saw the hottest day on record at 37.1c.
These facts are little more than academic as extremes in the Britain’s weather have continued into the 21st century, and if anything extremes have become and are becoming more frequent. The hottest day on record of 1990 was surpassed in 2004 when the mercury pushed to 37.7c, and some of the wettest months on record have been recorded in the last few years. But the records are only as good as the instruments and the diligences of the observer and for the large part the last millennium has been particularly lacking in this fashion. However thanks for technological advances and the wide spread use of Automatic Weather stations, that time is behind us, and when we get to the year 3000, Mendip weather should offer a more accurate and reliable weather review for the current millennium, and I for one look forward to writing it.