It’s been snowing in London today and there has been much talk of a white Christmas as a result, all of which prompted me to dig out some stuff I wrote about snow at Christmas and extreme winter weather round about this time last year (you can see the original posts here and here) and repost them on Another Kind Of Mind. The cold snap is going to continue, so make sure you wrap up warm now, and stay away from the yellow snow…
In the UK, a white Christmas is not as common an occurrance as you might think, mainly because December is early in the season for snow in most parts of Britain (snow is more common in January). And determining what exactly constitutes a white Christmas is a matter of debate.
For most people, when they think of a white Christmas they imagine precisely that – snow falling (and settling) on Christmas Day in large amounts. However, particularly for the purpose of placing bets on the matter, a white Christmas can be as insignificant-sounding as a single snowflake being observed falling during the twenty-four hours of 25th December. According to the Met Office website, the last Christmas to see conditions much like the former was 2004, when snow covered much of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Midlands, north-east and the far south-west of England.
That may have been cold, but count yourself lucky that you weren’t alive during the three hundred years between 1550 and 1850 when an unlucky Britain was in the grip of what became known as the ‘Little Ice Age’. Snow at Christmas was much more common during that period and its association with the season was cemented by the descriptions of festive snow in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and A Christmas Carol (Dickens, like any good Englishman should, had a strong, scientific interest in the weather).
However, it is likely that the series of major volcanic eruptions during the early part of the 19th century contributed to the particularly severe winters like those described by Dickens. The ash and dust produced by these massive eruptions shot up into the atmosphere with such force that the sun was dimmed and global temperatures dropped.
The ‘Little Ice Age’ resulted in some truly bitter, biting winters though, none more so than that of 1683. The winter of 1683 was probably the coldest in British history, although the surviving records are somewhat unreliable. It all began in mid-December with a very intense frost which froze the ground to depths of at least a metre, split trees open, and left many of the seaports in the English Channel frozen over.
The Thames was frozen all the way down to London Bridge, something Londoners were quick to take advantage of by setting up what became the greatest frost fair ever held on the frozen river. It lasted for two months and thousands came to enjoy themselves on the ice, including King Charles II, although one hopes that the royal personage didn’t end up slipping over onto the royal backside… Frost fairs persisted until the winter of 1813-14, but after that winters gradually began to become less severe.
However, the odd really, really cold one still slipped through the net, with the winter of 1962-3 being the coldest since 1740 (and the coldest year in the 20th century). The snow really began to fall over Christmas, and by Boxing Day most of England was engulfed in it. In fact, the snow was so heavy that winter that many people were not entirely clear of it until early March 1963.
Trains and buses were trapped in snowdrifts – in fact, at one point a 15ft high snowdrift blocked Oxford Circus in the West End of London. It was so cold that the sea froze (in some places to as far out as 4km), and ice floes floated off the south coast, also blocking some inland rivers (almost the whole of the non-tidal stretch of the Thames froze solid) . And at Deal in Kent the cafe on the pier had to be closed after it was raided by starving hungry seagulls. Apparently they ate everything except for a malt loaf!
Britain is a nation truly obsessed with the weather, and we have built up a remarkable statistical record of it over the centuries. Here are a few facts, figures and strange but true records associated with wintery weather in the UK and beyond…
– At Newport in Shropshire, the lowest recorded temperature in England was measured at -26.1C in January 1982.
– In Scotland, the lowest recorded temperature was -27.2C, measured at Braemar in Aberdeenshire – twice! (February 1895 and January 1982)
– Wales and Northern Ireland are a little bit warmer (although not by much!), measuring -23.3C (1940) and -17.5C (1979) respectively.
– The coldest place in the world is Plateau Station in Antartica, where the mean temperature is a sweltering -56.6C.
– The coldest temperature in the world was also measured in Antartica in 1983, where the mercury probably froze at -89.2C.
– 12% of the earth’s entire land surface is permanently covered by ice and snow.
– And 90% of that ice is found in Antartica. 98% of Antartica is covered in ice. That’s a lot of gin and tonics…
– On 14th April 1921, 1.93 metres of snow fell at Silver Lake, Colorado, which is the most snow ever to have been recorded as falling in one day.
– In September 1885, it snowed in London (the earliest that has happened).
– The winter of 1947 was the snowiest on record in Britain – somewhere in the country, snow fell every single day between 22nd January and 17th March.
– Snow falls as tiny ice crystals when the temperature is below 0C and as bigger snowflakes if the temperature is a few degrees above freezing.
– The Met Office website describes snowflakes as having “an infinite variety of shapes and forms”.
– But scientists think that only 1% of all snowflakes are symmetrical.
– Most snowflakes are pretty small, although some of the larger ‘star-shaped’ ones can be anything up to 2-3 inches wide.
– In Fort Keogh, Montana, in January 1887, snowflakes with a width of anything up to 15 inches fell, which would make catching them on your tongue a bit difficult! (they were the largest ever recorded).
– In Britain, snow is more likely the further north you travel, and the higher you get above sea level, but a temperature difference of as little as 1-2 degrees C can mean rain instead of snow.
– There are several different types of snow storm: snow flurries (short duration, does not usually settle), snow showers (falls briefly and at varying intensities, settling possible), snow squalls (brief, intense snow showers with gusting winds, will settle), and blizzards (winds over 35mph, low visibility, dangerous conditions).