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The Winter Of 1962/63

December 1, 2014

By Paul Homewood

 

Boats frozen in ice on Poole Harbour in 1963. (courtesy of M. Nimmo)

 

The winter of 1962/63 was the coldest for 200 years in Britain. The Met Office describe it:

 

It began abruptly just before Christmas in 1962. The weeks before had been changeable and stormy, but then on 22 December a high pressure system moved to the north-east of the British Isles, dragging bitterly cold winds across the country. This situation was to last much of the winter.

A belt of rain over northern Scotland on 24 December turned to snow as it moved south, giving Glasgow its first white Christmas since 1938. The snow-belt reached southern England on Boxing Day and parked over the country, bringing a snowfall of up to 30 cm.

A blizzard followed on 29 and 30 December across Wales and south-west England, causing snowdrifts up to 6 m deep. Roads and railways were blocked, telephone lines brought down, and some villages were left cut off for several days. The snow was so deep farmers couldn’t get to their livestock, and many animals starved to death.

This snow set the scene for the next two months, as much of England remained covered every day until early March 1963. While snow fell, and settled there was still plenty of sunshine. The weak winter sun did not warm things up, however, as the lack of cloud cover allowed temperatures to plunge. In Braemar in Scotland, the temperature got down to -22.2 °C on 18 January. Mean maximum temperatures in January were below 0 °C in several places in southern England and Wales, more than 5 °C below average. Mean minimum temperatures were well below freezing. Temperatures weren’t much higher for most of February.

The long bitterly cold spell caused lakes and rivers to freeze, even sea water in some of England’s harbours turned to ice. Ice patches formed at sea and on beaches. Winter didn’t fully relax its grip until 4 March, when a mild south-westerly flow of air reached the British Isles. By 6 March, there was no frost anywhere in the British Isles and the temperature in London reached 17 °C – the highest since October 1962.

 

 

The key factor, as the Met Office explain, was the blocking presence of a high pressure to the northeast. The Met Office monthly reports of the time give more detail. First, January:

 

image

http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/media/pdf/3/j/Jan1963.pdf

 

And February:

 

image

http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/media/pdf/3/e/Feb1963.pdf

 

The wider picture is clear from the GISS temperature maps, which show extreme cold stuck over much of Europe, but a hot spot over Greenland.

 

jan

feb

http://data.giss.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/gistemp/nmaps.cgi?sat=4&sst=3&type=anoms&mean_gen=02&year1=1963&year2=1963&base1=1951&base2=1980&radius=1200&pol=rob

 

This sort of blocking is the result of a meridional jet stream, which allows frigid air to come down from the Arctic, and then traps it there. This is the same meridional jet stream which Jennifer Francis says is now due to “melting Arctic ice”.

The reality is that these sort of weather events happen all the time, but that does not get you grant money.

33 Comments
  1. December 1, 2014 7:16 pm

    I actually remember that winter – as it shaped my perception of winters. I was in first grade, and more than once, we had to drive home on snowy roads (private school, so the teachers doubled as drivers) that made her hair grey. And it was bitterly cold as well (East coast of the US).

    The next time I saw winters like that was in Germany in the 70s.

    • December 1, 2014 10:52 pm

      We had to ride our bikes to school, about 2 miles away. The roads were never gritted, and we used to fall off most days!

      • December 2, 2014 3:46 pm

        Yea, once I was in HS, that was the routine. Someone mentioned the “rutted” roads. Which was the only place you could ride your bike. But car drivers in Germany hated bikes! So if you were not looking behind you, they would run you off the road (or run over you). Fortunately, snow is soft, so no broken bones. Just wet clothes and cursing.

  2. Retired Dave permalink
    December 1, 2014 7:32 pm

    Specialising in a branch of a suedo-science is the ultimate state of delusion as stated by Daniel J. Boorstin –

    ” The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”.

    Blocking has been with us for ever and a day. Another example of everything is due to 1 extra molecule of CO2 in every 10,000 of the atmosphere. If we get blocking it due to arctic sea ice melting. If we get a zonal flow as we did last winter that is due to arctic sea ice melting. right got that?

    Oh and it is just a bit inconvenient that the sea ice is increasing again now – due to global warming of course.

    The opposite of sceptical is gullible.

  3. December 1, 2014 7:35 pm

    I have a report that the winter of 1941 was worse.
    I will try and see if I can find that video.

  4. December 1, 2014 7:51 pm

    ” ……on 22 December a high pressure system moved to the north-east of the British Isles, dragging bitterly cold winds across the country.”

    If only they’d had windfarms in those days …….

    • Roger Cole permalink
      December 1, 2014 9:58 pm

      That was good smog weather too. The winds were very cold but also very light, more like a northerly drift than real winds at all. Everyone used to heat his home with an individual coal fire which used to direct nearly all the heat up the chimney along with the smoke but was great for making toast when it reached the glowing stage. Unfortunately when an inversion trapped the smoke at a low altitude, which was relatively frequently, the particles might condense on a piece of fencing wire for example, until it formed a rod of ice up to, as I remember, an inch and a half thick and it was yellow from the sulphur in it. When breathed, you would have sulphuric acid forming in your lungs and it would be difficult to see your feet. Walking home from school and doing the newspaper round I had that year was a great adventure. Strangely, I miss all that, but people who had lung problems would not.

  5. Dave Ward permalink
    December 1, 2014 7:53 pm

    I can just remember it – there was still compacted snow piled up on the verge opposite my grandfathers house in April. And many properties lost their mains water, as the pipes were only 12-18″ deep, and the penetrating cold found its way down that far.

  6. December 1, 2014 7:55 pm

    I do have a video of that winter, somewhere on my computer, but cannot find it now. Here is the proof.

    http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/1520-0477%281989%29070%3C0271%3ATSWIET%3E2.0.CO%3B2

    • December 1, 2014 10:54 pm

      More “blockings” I see!

      I’ll check tomorrow, but I suspect this one shifted further east, so did not affect the UK as much

  7. A C Osborn permalink
    December 1, 2014 7:57 pm

    I was 16 that year and I don’t remember our school closing at all.
    In 1967/8 we had some more really bad snow and I remember riding my bike 4 miles to work in the snow, it wasn’t too bad until the cars caused deep ruts in the snow which turned icy. On the hills it was difficult to get the bike wheels out of a rut once they were in one.
    I also remember my hands were very very cold on the bike even with Sheep Skin Lined Gauntlets.

    There was also severe snow in the 1970s after I had moved to Wales, with very heavy snow drifts burying many cars, but I can’t remember the exact year.
    It was caused by a warm storm coming in from the south west meeting freezing air from the north, north/east.

    Of course the brainwashed youngsters of today have no such experiences of hot or cold weather to balance against the current claims of “Hottest, Coldest, Wettest, Windiest, Stormiest, Longest Droughts Propaganda etc we get fed by everybody today.

  8. John Palmer permalink
    December 1, 2014 8:03 pm

    I too lived through that winter. Being just 16 then, my main means of transport were ‘Shanksie’s’ or my trusty fixed-wheel bicycle (I was already a keen bike-racer then). I must have been fortunate to be living in suburban SW London then as I’m sure it would’ve been worse in rural areas, but we still walked and cycled on packed snow/ice all through until March. It was inconvenient, yes, but not the end of the world. I was also a keen angler then (still am) and we’d regularly bike from Wimbledon to Molesey or Teddington in big minus conditions for a days fishing – especially as the schools were closed on a frequent basis.
    I don’t recall any serious hardship around us then – although there must have been, it was very cold and double-glazing/central heating were virtually unheard-of. The stats will no doubt tell the full horror of the story, but I still have quite fond memories of that time – just think of the media hoo-ha if we had a spell like that now!!
    We’ve become a bunch of softies, no doubt about it.
    I still have my bike though – just in case!

  9. mitigatedsceptic permalink
    December 1, 2014 8:57 pm

    I remember it very well. I had to drive from Edinburgh to Southampton in an open sports car (Daimler Dart). It was powerful and very light and I could travel safely on the fast lane where the A1 was duelled. The fast lane was well covered with snow but virtually unused. Traffic on the near side lane was very slow moving. I made good time and had the thrill of my life. I was properly dressed for the occasion – Mae West and goggles!

  10. frederikwisse permalink
    December 1, 2014 9:37 pm

    Was this the winter after the soviets initiated their trials with megasized atomatic bombs 10 kiliometers above nova Zembla in the autumn of 1962 ? Might this have influenced the warming of the troposphere necessary for such a type of winter ?

    • Brian H permalink
      December 2, 2014 8:11 am

      Nah.

  11. John permalink
    December 1, 2014 10:17 pm

    Remember it well ..
    The snow was up to the roof & our town in Norfolk was cut off.
    Only day I ever remember my father could not travel 12 miles to work

    Now if it sniffs of snow teachers take a ‘snowday’

    • December 2, 2014 3:31 pm

      I suspect you mean the UK Norfolk, but I was also in Norfolk at that time. The US version.

  12. Anything is possible permalink
    December 1, 2014 10:23 pm

    A veritable treasure trove of information on the UK winter of 1962-63 can be found here :

    http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/mtullett/1962-63/index.htm

    Enjoy!

  13. robinedwards36 permalink
    December 1, 2014 11:06 pm

    In the 1941 winter I had started secondary school (The Priory, Shrewsbury) . No buses,just my pushbike, and several miles of nearly deserted lanes. I missed quite a lot of school – roads really impassable – but enjoyed some good sledging. Did a bit of study too, I seem to recall, but little good it did me! The School House, where I lived, was like a refrigerator. The school’s milk “ration” when it did arrived was frozen in its bottles. No children to drink it either. Winters seem not to be like they were in days of yore – but that’s anecdotal, so should be heavily discounted. I do remember our outside thermometer reading 12F once, and thought it was a bit unusual.

  14. December 2, 2014 12:26 am

    Here in Ireland 1947 rather than 1962/3 is the year which is remembered (I remember 1962/63 rather well, but I was too young in 1947 to have any memories). In 1947 two higher villages in County Wicklow, just South of Dublin, were isolated for up to six weeks, while in 1962/63 there was no similar isolations, a couple of days at most, and the possibility of using helicopters to bring in supplies.

    There is an interesting book published in 2011 on that winter: “Ireland’s Arctic Siege”, “The Big Freeze of 1947” by Kevin C. Kearns, Gill & Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-7171-4863-9. Some highlights from the dust jacket: five major blizzards from January 19th on, temperatures down to 7F, British coal exports halted, nearly half of all Dubliners burning furniture to survive, Dublin death rate doubled by February 19th, frozen earth causing bodies to be stockpiled in coffins or snow pits. March 18th brought sunshine and warmth – followed by severe flooding which brought the threat of harvest failure and famine, fortunately averted.

  15. December 2, 2014 12:39 am

    Paul you missed out a critical extra for some of the country.

    The snow was nothing that special apart from drifting… but then came freezing rain. This melted the top and made a layer of ice on top of snow, coated trees and power lines. The crust remained through causing lots of trouble.
    Web documents on this are sparse.

    ‘orrible winter, ice on the insides of windows. Miserable.

    Ireland too
    http://irishweatheronline.wordpress.com/climate-of-ireland/historic-weather-events/winter-of-1962-1963/

    • Sparks permalink
      December 2, 2014 2:56 am

      We have double glazing now thanks to technology Tim, I remember my grandparents house having frost on the single glass pained windows in the 1980’s.

      • Brian H permalink
        December 2, 2014 8:16 am

        paned.

        It only pained if you tried to lick it off.

      • Sparks permalink
        December 3, 2014 1:06 am

        You are correct.. hilarious under tones Brian..

  16. John F. Hultquist permalink
    December 2, 2014 1:12 am

    In the years before the winter of this post the ice on the Arctic Ocean wasn’t much different than recently. Some parts had thick ice and some none. Here’s a report from August of 1958 – including a Polar Bear!
    http://www.navalhistory.org/2011/08/11/uss-skate-ssn-578-becomes-the-first-submarine-to-surface-at-the-north-pole

  17. December 2, 2014 8:33 am

    I lived through that winter in remote location in Perthshire. The house didn’t have electricity until earlier this century. We used paraffin and calor gas for lighting and heating, and we’re reduced to sawing, by hand, the next year’s stock of wood to keep warm by February.

    It left me with a lifelong fear of running out of heat and a strong dislike of people who put energy supplies in jeopardy whoever they are. Would that the DECC from top to bottom and Frack Off could pass a winter like that.

    My parents reckoned that 1947 was worse, they were in the Birmingham area then

  18. Harold Hughes permalink
    December 2, 2014 2:12 pm

    I was responsible for starting up Britain’s first high-pressure town- gas-fromoil plant that winter, for South Eastern Gas Board at Isle of Grain. We’d had about six months of earlier problems but that winter we got it started in November and it ran without cessation until April. Just as well!

  19. mike fowle permalink
    December 2, 2014 2:32 pm

    I remember 1962. We had a belated Christmas Party on Boxing Day and as people were leaving it started to snow. I was 12 years old. As someone said above, the schools didn’t shut as I recall, but we didn’t get to play outdoor games till March. The sea froze off Southend where I lived then.

  20. Richard Bell permalink
    December 2, 2014 2:53 pm

    I have to start by saying I was only 3 years old in the winter of 1963 …… BUT pretty much one of my first memories is being taken with my whole family down to the river at Walton-on-Thames. Surrey ……. It was frozen over and we walked on the ice. I remember a small boat that had half sunk near the shore and it was sticking out of the ice. My mother always used to talk about the winter of 1963 as the worst she could remember.

    At the age now of 54 I live in Southern California and the contrast to living in Surrey in the 60’s is interesting as the house I own now was sold to me as ” one of the first track houses built in the area ” circa 1963 / 1965 ……. and is one of the oldest houses hear ???

    Just goes to show what a young country the USA is !!! ……. I would be interested in any information on what the Winter of 1963 was like in California ???

    • September 8, 2015 5:47 am

      The 1962-63 winter was generally dry and mild all through western North America and Alaska – though January was cold south of about Prince George, British Columbia, and there was a very big warm frontal storm at the close of January. Snow cover on the Sierra Nevada and Cascades was little higher than the winter of 1976-77.

      Following this storm was an exceptionally warm February – the warmest over large parts of California, Nevada, Oregon and Idaho until the 2010s drought.

      In January 1963, Barrow, Alaska astonishingly topped freezing three times in two events – normally this happens there during winter only once every few years.

      San Diego recorded its second sub-4-inch “rain year” in three years with only 3.98 inches from July 1962 to June 1963, whilst Los Angeles had received less than 0.3 inch (8 millimetres) before the storm at the close of January.

  21. Jill permalink
    May 3, 2016 2:01 pm

    Hi Paul, I found your site only yesterday, while searching for information on the temperatures in 1963, so I’m still getting aquainted with everything here. I am a naturally curious person and am, admittedly, a weather novice. (One college course in climatology showed me how complex and difficult this particular science truly is.) I’m interested in what constitutes accurate, *factual* temperature reports before the advent of modern data gathering practices. Presumably, less scientific or “controlled” data (e.g., diaries, letters and other anecdotal histories) may likely be considered in piecing together temperature and weather patterns from the 18th and 19th centuries, yes? I wonder what constitutes factually accurate if anecdotal weather and temperature data? Because I am also mother to two young children (equally curious humans, btw), I have begun rereading a few of my childhood classics, and we recently read “Farmer Boy” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. (In case you don’t know, this summarizes her husband Almanzo’s childhood experiences in upstate New York — Malone, specifically — in the mid-1800’s.) This book, not unlike others in her collection, tells of fierce winters and arctic temperatures: Almanzo’s father was a successful farmer who would routinely wake up around midnight, trudging into the barnyard to “thaw out” frozen muzzles and save the young cows from suffocation and/or freezing to death as barn space constraints forced a good number of his herd to stay out of doors throughout winter nights. The specific temperature referred to was “40 below” — although I don’t believe a description of the thermometer type was given. Yet, children still walked to school, participated in farm chores with adults, even played outdoors during said weather — modern schools won’t let youngsters have outdoor recess if temps are below 20 degrees (ABOVE!) Fahrenheit, or thereabouts!! (Victorian-era children also wore mainly hand-loomed or knitted clothing, accessories and outerwear — mankind needed another 100 years to develop “polar fleece” or wind-proof synthetic fabrics, let alone snow pants and mittens, waterproof footwear, etc. etc.) But I digress… my point is, these weather/temperature comparison discussions with my kiddos led me to browse internets stats on winter temperatures in the 19th and 20th centuries, trying to find if these temperature observations were similar to more “official” documentation in our country’s weather archives. I didn’t find much support for the low temps experienced and reported by the Wilder family, but arguably I may not have found the right websites. During a related search, I read where Eliza Jane, one of Almanzo’s sisters, a female pioneer in her adulthood, recorded similar (“40 below”) temperatures while living in Minnesota (or a similarly positioned location on the edge of the western frontier) — but she noted which thermometers she used. In fact, she mentioned having to measure frigid temps using a “spirit thermometer” as her mercurial version froze in the extremely low temperatures. Do you have any thoughts, or perhaps even suggestions for additional resources for comparison of empirical or anecdotal data, regarding early temperature reports? Thanks in advance! -J. Olsen, Michigan

  22. Ruth Shrensky permalink
    November 14, 2016 1:11 pm

    I’ve just seen this post. I’d been describing the cold of Christmas/New Year 1962-3 to a friend who didn’t believe me, so I thought I’d do a google check to see if it really was as cold as I remembered. Six of us, Londoners, had rented a picturesque Queen Anne stone cottage in a tiny village near Frome in Somerset, southwest England, to spend a week or so over Christmas and the New Year—we thought it would be romantic. Well, it was very picturesque and romantic for about two minutes, then the snow came. And came. And came. The old cottage may have been made of stone, but there were cracks in the walls, and the cold came in. The usual offices consisted of a hole at the end of the garden, which froze over minutes after it was used. We couldn’t get to the village shop as the roads were totally impassable; luckily we had brought a lot of food with us, and plenty of cigarettes. We all just stayed in the kitchen day and night, with the stove to keep us warmish. I don’t recall getting undressed, though I suppose I must have done once or twice, but I know my Marks and Sparks jumper, heavy jeans, and obligatory duffle coat (we were sort of beatniks) were certainly worn night and day. We were stuck there for days longer than we had intended, as the roads back to London were not cleared until well into January. The whole experience was amazing.

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