Rainfall shutdown during lockdown

1st June 2020 Last updated at 15:56
A few shoppers walk beneath blue skies as lockdown begins.
Hollie Adams
Blue skies over London as lockdown begins in March

According to the Met Office, it has been the sunniest spring on record for the UK, while parts of Scotland, and north west and north east England also declared their driest spring on record. Not only that, but also May was the sunniest calendar month on record.

Since the start of spring, it's not only our daily lives that have undergone massive change, but our weather has completely turned around too.

The back end of winter was filled with grey skies, relentless rain, and news reports showing travel disruption and swollen rivers bursting their banks, leaving flooded homes and businesses disappearing under rising water.

Met Office figures show that in 2020 we saw the wettest February on record and at the peak of the flooding, the Environment Agency in England had almost 600 active flood warnings, the highest number ever in force. A number of rivers also rose to unprecedented levels, including the River Severn and the River Wye.

Flooded homes and businesses near Ironbridge as a result of the River Severn rising to unprecedented levels.
February 2020: Flooded homes and businesses near Ironbridge after the River Severn rose to unprecedented levels

Fast forward to the end of May and the landscape looks completely different across large parts of the UK. Flooded fields and waterlogged gardens have been replaced by cracked ground, wilting crops and parched, browning lawns. Some rivers that flooded earlier this year are now running at exceptionally low levels. The Rivers Lune and Kent in north west England are at a similar level to those seen in the droughts of 1984 and 2011.

The lack of rain in May has broken records in England with parts of north west, central and south east England seeing their driest May. Only 4mm of rain fell in south east England; central England recorded 5mm, and north west England 13mm.

Dry and warm conditions cause the ground to crack in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire, towards the end of May.
Dry and warm conditions cause the ground to crack in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire, towards the end of May

Benson in Oxfordshire is likely to have been the driest place, with "no measurable rain" falling in their rain bucket. The dry theme continued across the South East as parts of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and West Sussex had only 0.4mm of rain during the month - the average for May in these areas is closer to 50mm.

For England and Wales as a whole, it was the second driest May on record, just 2mm wetter than the 8mm of rain recorded back in May 1884.

What's behind the contrast from winter to spring?
Weather chart showing the jet stream
The white arrows on this image indicate the position of the jet stream, allowing high pressure to build over the UK

The position of the jet stream is one of the main drivers behind the variability of weather in the UK. In late winter, the jet stream was stuck to the south of the UK, keeping rain-bearing low pressure systems across our shores. In contrast, during spring it was largely anchored to the north of the UK , allowing high pressure to build and dominate our weather charts, whilst the rainy low pressure systems stayed out in the Atlantic.

Some scientists say these "stalled" weather patterns are a result of climate change and the warming that is taking place in the Arctic region which could lead to more extreme weather events in future.

Dr Liz Bentley, Chief Executive of the Royal Meteorological Society, said: "It's unprecedented to see such a swing from one extreme to the other in such a short space of time. That's what concerns me. We don't see these things normally happening with our seasons.

"It's part of a pattern where we're experiencing increasingly extreme weather as the climate changes."

Are we at risk of a drought?

With grass growth already 40% below the long-term average in parts of the UK, farming charity Forage Aid has already warned farmers to prepare for drought.

However, the Environment Agency in England says: "Most companies across the country have appropriate water reserves for this time of year. While dry weather since late March has led to a decline in some reservoirs, this is not unusual during a hot and dry spell, and they can recover quickly when the rain returns."

A soil-deficit anomaly map showing dry conditions across the UK in May
World Climate Service
A soil moisture-deficit map shows dry conditions across the UK in May
Any sign of rain in the forecast?

According to the forecasters at MeteoGroup/DTN, the indicators for June suggest that it is possible that the dry and warm theme will continue to dominate our weather.

You can read our latest Monthly Outlook here.