Winter not quite as cold as some thought

Tuesday 22nd Mar 2011 by theWeather Club

This winter has seen a procession of spokesmen and women wheeled out in front of the cameras to explain one system failure or another. At some point the word ‘unprecedented’ would appear followed by some time later in the statement by the phrase ‘coldest winter for xx years’. The number would vary but it was usually around 35. This would inevitably lead to a flurry of messages directed at the offending organisation pointing out that following an event labelled ‘unprecedented’ with an example of the last it happened was nonsensical as that last occasion would technically serve as a precedent even if it took place in the dim and distant realm of 1980s Britain.

Now it seems that provisional data for the winter so far shows that you don’t have to go back decades to find a winter as cold as this one. In fact you don’t have to go back very far at all. You need to travel one year to be precise. This winter it turns out hasn’t been as cold as last winter, despite the exceptionally cold December. In fact the lowest temperature this winter has been -21.3°C at Altnaharra in the Scottish Highlands - not quite as cold as the -22.3°C reached in the winter of 2009/10. The mean UK temperature was 2.4°C, compared to 1.6°C last winter. A 'normal' winter average temperature would be 3.7°C. Heavy snow and very cold weather dominated the UK through much of December, but that was one month, which does not a winter make. During January, UK mean temperatures were close to average and by February were above average. In fact we have gone from the coldest December to the ninth warmest February on record.

Though provisional, these figures suggest that the last two winters have been colder than the long term norm. But they also show that constant references to ‘unprecedented’ conditions are not strictly accurate. There has clearly been some terrible weather this winter, which has caused many people inconvenience and distress. However there have been precedents for these events, and some in the very recent past. What the spokespeople should have been saying was that conditions were ‘unexpectedly harsh’, not claiming they were uniquely so. But one can appreciate their dilemma, the line ‘we knew things could get this bad but didn’t prepare because we didn’t expect them to’, probably wouldn’t have done much to placate hordes of irate consumers.