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The Big freeze. How does it compare?

Paul Hudson | 14:17 UK time, Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The severe weather will be with us for some considerable time. Latest indications are that the next 10 days, taking us up to and through the middle of January, will remain bitterly cold with severe night frosts and further snow fall. Already depths in some areas are in excess of 30cms, with some northern Pennine areas now reporting 40 cms of snow, according to the Met office. Even the suburbs of Leeds have around 20 cms. These snow depths have not been seen since the winter of 1981/1982.

Of interest will be the strengthening easterly wind through Friday and the weekend and into next week. This will bring snow showers, frequent at times especially to eastern areas, with a risk of significant further accumulations. The drifting of lying snow will become a big problem. Already 10 feet drifts have been reported around villages close to Saddleworth moor.

So how does this rate with previous winters? It's already the longest cold spell since the winter of 1981/1982. It's impossible to make further comparisons with other winters because we are still only in the early part of January. But the most notable ones were 1978/79, 1962/63 and 1946/47.

1962/63 was the coldest of the last century. There was a lot of snow, but the dominant easterly weather pattern was also clear at times, which lead to very low overnight temperatures but sparkling Arctic type sunny days.

1946/47 was not statistically as cold, but much snowier and very grey. It was all in all a very miserable winter and because it was so soon after the second world war rationing was still in place, and such were the snow depths that some remote villages were cut off and close to starvation, unable to be reached from the outside.

So although the statistics tells us that 1962/63 was the coldest, people who lived through both winters will tell you that 1946/47 had much more impact and was far worse for a number of reasons.

Both winters had temporary milder interludes, but the cold air lasted through the winter and into March. When the thaw came, especially in 1947, widespread severe flooding followed.

Both winters were also dominated by strong easterly winds at times, and drifts were 15ft deep and more. Similar drifts are likely as we head through the weekend across higher parts of Yorkshire.

I'm on an outside broadcast in Stamford Bridge, East Yorkshire, this evening. I will add more as soon as I can free up some time, and will comment about how well this was predicted and possible explanations for the type of weather we are having.


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  • 1. At 5:49pm on 06 Jan 2010, QuaesoVeritas wrote:

    I am currently monitoring this winter against past winter temperatures, based on CET. The mean CET for 1978/79 was 1.56c, 1946/47 was 1.16c and 1962/63 was 1.09c. Currently the cumulative mean CET for this winter is 2.54c. Since the mean was 3.1c at the end of December, it seems unlikely that any of the above winters will be beaten but the average is currently going down quickly.

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  • 2. At 6:35pm on 06 Jan 2010, ManmadeupGW wrote:


    That does not matter becuasE Hadcrut employ very capable scientists who know how to smooth data.

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  • 3. At 7:10pm on 06 Jan 2010, QuaesoVeritas wrote:

    #2. - ManmadeupGW
    "That does not matter becuasE Hadcrut employ very capable scientists who know how to smooth data."
    Not sure what you mean - could you be more explicit?
    In any case, I was referring to CET not HadCRUT3.

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  • 4. At 8:42pm on 06 Jan 2010, david burrows wrote:

    My concern is what'll happen to all this snow when it melts - hello again to floods ??? And what will summer be like based on previous cold winters?

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  • 5. At 8:49pm on 06 Jan 2010, Chris Hansom wrote:

    I remember the big freeze of 78/79 probably the last major snowfall and persistant low temperatures. I do feel we seem to be more at the mercy of the weather these days. We seem ill prepared for even minor amounts of snow. I was only 11 at the time so the snow was probably less deep than I thought. The schools still functioned the transport system didnt grind to a halt etc

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  • 6. At 9:08pm on 06 Jan 2010, Chris Thompson wrote:

    I'd be interested to hear Paul's comments on the time interval between these harsh winters. There were sixteen years from '46 to '62, sixteen from '62 to '78 and thirty-two from '78 to now. Is this just coincidence or could it demonstrate some sort of pattern? Was there anything unusual about the weather systems at the end of 1994 that might have averted a cold winter?

    I have no expertise in this field (I once wanted to be a weather man but they broke my heart when it went computerized and they no longer got to stick the clouds on the map!) so excuse me if I'm jumping at shadows!

    Rev Chris T.

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  • 7. At 9:29pm on 06 Jan 2010, brenda miller wrote:

    Please can you tell me what part of the country Wakefield is in - I listen to the forecast for the North but my husband says "we're in that bit in the middle". Also, sorry to be nit-picking but as a former proof-reader, may I correct your spelling of 'lead' in paragraph 4 ? It should be 'led'.

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  • 8. At 9:36pm on 06 Jan 2010, Chris Linthwaite wrote:

    Is there any indications that El Nino has restarted and is this linked to the shift in the Jetstream which is preventing the Westerley weather patterns at this time of year from travelling over the United Kingdom and thus allowing the cold air of the continent move towards the Eastern seaboard of the UK?

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  • 9. At 10:30pm on 06 Jan 2010, Adrian Buckland wrote:

    Although your comments address the spectacular periods of
    February 1947, 1962/63 1978/79 and the first half of the 1981/82 winter
    I wonder if you have considered the period Jan 25th to March 4th 1986.
    It was a predominately dry period but seem to remember it was very cold.
    The January westerlies switched off abruptly in a very similar way to what happened on December 10th 2009 after the 6 week deluge.

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  • 10. At 01:54am on 07 Jan 2010, Mateybass wrote:

    @ Chris Hansom re:78/79 and other winters

    I was still a school student during that period and I can't remember the country being overwhelmed but to be honest I wouldn't have cared too much as long as my sledge was still in one piece. There are several factors that could account for how poorly we cope during snow.

    Firstly, cars in the late 70's had narrower tyres (watch rally cars on snow surfaces) and those tyres had more of a blocky tread pattern rather than the fancy treaded wider, low-profile designs fitted for optimum sporty grip levels today. These days European motorists cope better under these circumstances by fitting winter tyres which have a different compound (with varying amounts of silica) that works to grip the road much better at very low temperatures, 5°C or less. Some well respected motoring organisations have suggested we don't get enough cold weather to warrant them, but I'd suggest that when we do get cold weather, we'd be able to cope much better and not block roads with abandoned cars if we did switch to winter tyres. Most tyres used in the UK are usually classed as summer tyres which tend to lose their ability to grip at lower than 5°C, but there are all-season tyres available in the UK which would be a useful compromise. We also don't generally use snow chains because of our policy of gritting roads, rendering chains useless, clearing them back to tarmac so they can freeze up again each night. We need to look at Europe to see how they manage to keep roads operating.

    Schools still functioned during the 70's because they generally had a catchment area which was within walking distance of the school and that's what we did... walk to school. Teachers usually lived in the same town as their school too. Having worked in schools, I know that quite a number of teachers prefer to live far enough away from the school these days that they don't come across their pupils at the weekend. "When I were a lad", living in a rural town, when it snowed heavily enough to cut our town off (which used to happen nearly every year after the railway was closed down) the only students who couldn't get in were in the outlying villages.

    The transport system must still have had it's problems even back then but weren't as much of a hindrance to daily life because most workers (excluding the bigger cities) didn't have to travel too far to get to their work. Nowadays many have to travel further afield to work or during the course of their work.

    However, I suspect the biggest change is to the way these events are now reported with BBC news specials on the telly, and 24hour rolling news which must be filled with doom and gloom wherever possible to make us feel better about ourselves :)

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  • 11. At 10:18am on 07 Jan 2010, John Marshall wrote:

    62/63 winter was quite cool. I was at RAF Hullavington at the time as a UT Navigator and we were cut off from the local town for a week and reduced to hard tack biscuits after the flour ran out for making bread. The local road was drifted to 20ft and had to be hand dig until the RAF sent an AWD Snow Plough which cleared the road in a couple of hours. We had 4ft of snow on the runway which was cleared at the end of Feb 63. The cold lasted to early March with a slow spring start.
    I understand that 1947 was bad in Lincolnshire and I have seen photographs of snow drifts up to the telegraph wires along long sections of local Wolds roads.
    So far we do not seem to have had it so bad. Although today has started with a couple of 'Severe Snow Events' which I would classify as mild blizzards.
    Have a Warm Day!

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  • 12. At 10:24am on 07 Jan 2010, John Marshall wrote:

    If anyone is wondering, RAF Hullavington is in Wiltshire, near Chippenham. Now an Army depot.
    It is interesting to see reports that America/Canada expect a further influx of Arctic air later this week with further record low temperatures. With the Jet Stream waves moveing east will this cold follow in a few more days?
    I will look on with interest.

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  • 13. At 10:27am on 07 Jan 2010, morven7 wrote:

    I too had noticed a 16 year pattern which is normally printed as 1947 - 1963 - 1979 but apparently 1931 was pretty bad also. So what happened to 1994/5 ?.

    It seems very similar to 1962 - 63 to me starting in mid December and lasting until early March. We were prevented from playing rugby for all that time. It seemed a life time to me then.

    I beleive that 1947 was very snowy and that it did not start until late February. I remember family stories of the Engineer at York Waterworks being within fractions of an inch of having to close down the water supply to the city. This was due to the flood levels on the River Ouse about a month later

    I'm sure Mr. Hudson will know or be able to find the answer. I look forward to being enlightened

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  • 14. At 11:20am on 07 Jan 2010, alan white wrote:

    1947 was the SNOWIEST WINTWE since 1814,and these winters were the two snowiest winters in the last 300 years.

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  • 15. At 11:22am on 07 Jan 2010, Paul Latham wrote:

    To my mind the jetstream has a greater influence over our weather patterns and the type of air mass over the British Isles at any one time than any other factor.

    By implication the jetstream may also be an influence over climate. Long term changes in this flow pattern may have a greater bearing on climate change than some other hypotheses.

    It would be interesting to know the jetstream pattern during the winters of 46/47, 62/63 and 78/79 & 80/81. Perhaps Paul can give us some history about this influence ?

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  • 16. At 1:26pm on 07 Jan 2010, Mick Glaves wrote:

    David Burrows asked what will the summer be like based on previous cold winters. Of the 10 coldest winters of the last century only 1947 had a hot summer. As for flooding, 1947 also had severe flooding but it will depend on the rate of thaw and let's remember 1947 had exceptional snowfall - much more than we have currently.

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  • 17. At 2:03pm on 07 Jan 2010, Barbara Robinson wrote:

    Hi Paul hope you are keeping warmer than us in Almondbury in Huddersfield. we never get a mention , Shelia and I are volunteers for the local tenants and residents of Almondbury South. we have been trying in vain to get pavements cleared for the elderly. In some places it is 4ft deep. There ios no chance of the elderly or infirm to cope with this. Get a gri Kirklees when I was a youngster in the 50s we never got stuck like this.

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  • 18. At 4:31pm on 07 Jan 2010, RABON wrote:

    Have put a bit (letter) in the York Press today about the record year of
    1740. The Central England mean winter temperature was almost the same of that of 1963 although as far as I am aware the annual mean is still the lowest in the record from 1659 to 2009. The interesting fact is that the previous decade of the 1730s had been generally warm and 1740 marked the downturn to a much cooler decade. Looking further back the decade of the 1690s had also been cool. A plot of the running 5 year means produces a double "hockey stick". May not be significant but CO2 was not a factor then. As Paul has said the next 5 to 10 years are going to be very interesting !

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  • 19. At 6:13pm on 07 Jan 2010, Nicola Richardson wrote:

    I have just measured the amount of snow in Kirkbymoorside and there is 5 inches, with more falling.

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  • 20. At 7:05pm on 07 Jan 2010, QuaesoVeritas wrote:

    #15 - Paul Latham
    "It would be interesting to know the jetstream pattern during the winters of 46/47, 62/63 and 78/79 & 80/81. Perhaps Paul can give us some history about this influence ?"
    Since the jetstream wasn't really understood until after WWII, in the absence of any artificial satellites, it seems unlikely that there will be any detailed record of it for 46/47. I agree that the jetstream is an important factor in UK weather, although it is rarely mentioned. On the other hand, I understand that it is frequently referred to in the U.S.A.
    #6 - Chris Thompson
    "I'd be interested to hear Paul's comments on the time interval between these harsh winters. There were sixteen years from '46 to '62, sixteen from '62 to '78 and thirty-two from '78 to now. Is this just coincidence or could it demonstrate some sort of pattern? Was there anything unusual about the weather systems at the end of 1994 that might have averted a cold winter?"
    In terms of CET, the winter of 94/95 was actually unusually warm, although 96/97 was colder than normal, but not exeptionally so, 90/91, 84/85 and 86/87 were actually slightly colder. Personally, I think that the apparent 16 year pattern is just coincidence, although it would be nice to know the weather patterns behind past cold winters.

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  • 21. At 10:00am on 08 Jan 2010, John Marshall wrote:

    Solar magnetic activity is getting lower. If Svensmark is correct then we are in for more cold.
    Read 'The Chilling Stars' which explains the theory in easy to understand language. Correlations of ice ages with movement of the solar system through the spiral arms of our galaxy is very good. We are currently moveing through a spiral arm.
    The BBC is still insistant on AGW being true. One swallow does not a summer make, nor one cold winter a cooling climate.
    Sceptics do not argue about changing climate. It changes, always has, always will. It is the reasons why it changes that is the argument and the old CO2 drives temperature is still the Raison D'etre of BBC environmental reporting. It is about time that they looked again at the science, and realise that the data sets that it relies on are wrong, or at least do not show what is claimed.

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  • 22. At 10:18am on 08 Jan 2010, John Marshall wrote:

    #15 Paul Latham asks about the Jet Streams and their tracking years ago. I do not think that we were actually aware that these high speed wind tracks existed way back in 1963. They were discovered when aircraft could actially get high enough for their affect to be established and the old propeller driven aircraft, with a few exceptions, could not. Navigation was poor then and establishment of wind strength and direction, a navigator's real job on board, relies on accurate position finding and plotting, a near impossible task on oceanic legs in those days.
    Jet aircraft, at least UK mititary ones, could fly high high enough and a friend who flew across the Atlantic in just over 3 hours in a Victor I due to catching a jet stream was one of the first to establish the fact of Jet Stream existance. Their ground speed was over 1000 kts. Fairly high for a subsonic aircraft flying at Mach 0.96, about 720 kts true air speed.
    So to answer PL's question, I do not think that this information will be available.

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  • 23. At 3:11pm on 08 Jan 2010, Philip Appleyard wrote:

    I'd just like you all to spare a thought for us lot out here at Withernsea, there is hardly any snow on the ground, it isn't freezing, people are going about as normal...in other words boring, everywhere else is snowed in, all the snow showers coming across the Nth Sea tend to move round this bit of the E.Riding...have done for years in the winter, i would love to see 6-10" of snow on the ground, back in Jan 87 there was very heavy snow and the town was cut off for days...i was in Scotland as they had f/cast it worse there...!, deep snow makes everything peaceful and beautiful, just think you are experiencing a record breaking winter and you will be able to tell your kids/grandkids that you lived through the winter of 2009/10

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  • 24. At 4:18pm on 08 Jan 2010, Roger Smith wrote:

    I remember 1963 [I was 10] and there was a continuous frost for 100 days - from Boxing Day to Easter. The snow in Wiltshire stopped everything until early January, but we went to a freezing school from Day 1 of the Easter Term! Central heating at school was non-existant, just those large "pot-bellied" coke stoves!

    In 1981-82 I was living near Ingleton and was snowed-in for a week as my hamlet [Ireby] road was not on the milk tanker route so no road clearance. We also had the temperatures down to -18C.

    Today in East Yorkshire it is very cold and the snow is a pain, but we are so much better equipped.

    BTW A local story has it that in 1947 a charabang taking a party from the panto in Doncaster got stuck at North Newbald [on its way to Brid] and was stuck in the village hall for up to six weeks!! I have tried to verify this in the public records, but local insist that the story is true. Does anyone know?

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  • 25. At 5:44pm on 08 Jan 2010, EPF wrote:

    @ #8
    The El Nino is presently growing and could well see an interesting summer conditions, but as yet is probably not to blame for the cold winter.

    It's interesting too see that some artic areas have recorded winter temperatures above or at freezing, many degrees above average, a real flip in the weather.

    As for what will happen when this ends, well if we are lucky we will have a gradual thaw, allowing a longer lag between melt and river peak discharge reducing flood risk. However, the way it works for the people in the at risk areas, i'd plan on a rapid thaw probably combined with heavy rain, just to heap on the misery. If your house is at risk from flooding, i'd get my furniture upstairs and prepare to leave for a few days/weeks

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  • 26. At 10:07am on 09 Jan 2010, John Marshall wrote:

    There is much comment and criticism over the snow clearing methods and equipment used. The UK, for a northern European country, seems ill prepared for snow. Spain has better snow clearance equipment than we do!
    In America, where snow is more common, clearance is started early with big ploughs and cars parked in the way seem not to bother the plough drivers who will push these out of the way and continue with the job. Local roads are kept clear, well enough to drive on, by locals with blades on their 4x4's and the county pays for this service! I have even seen a 4x4 with blade front and back so all bases covered. There is also a track add-on for 4x4's these are a replacement for the wheels and is a simple 20 min job to change from wheeled to tracked driving. With these it is possible to drive over drifts of whatever depth. Nothing stops you.
    One good thing about low temperatures is that below -10 ice is not slippery because there is no water to lubricate. Icy roads are like driving on gravel. Gentle driving gets you where you want to go with no wheel spin at all.
    Mind you this is not a wish for colder weather just an observation of the possibilities should it happen.
    #25 Yes a gentle thaw would be best but not probable.

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  • 27. At 10:30am on 09 Jan 2010, WicstunTomo wrote:

    I'm sat looking at the 'snow fields' writing this and have just started reading 'The Real Global Warming Disaster' C Booker and the thought strikes me that if we are wrong (I think we are very!!) about CO2 being responsible what will happen if our 'blind' politicians led us to lower CO2 emmisions - how will this effect the climate, will these winter become the norm!!
    Also little is made of the benefits of global warming - better plant growth / higher yields from more CO2 etc. I think we would cope better with warm rather than this cold - glad I'm not still a farmer having to carry water to my pigs twice a day!!!

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  • 28. At 1:35pm on 09 Jan 2010, QuaesoVeritas wrote:

    I agree with you that the benefits of warming are often ignored, and that it would be preferable to have a slight warming trend than a cooling one. However, it isn't possible to say on the one hand that CO2 doesn't cause warming and on the other hand, that a reduction in CO2 would make the world cooler.

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