The Myth Of Snowy Winters
By Paul Homewood
We have all heard the “snow is a thing of the past” nonsense. But was the past really as snowy as we are told?
Even in the last week or so, I have come across two stories of how it does not snow as much anymore.
For instance, the BBC’s Book of the Week is “Snow” by Marcus Sedgwick. I am not sure how you can write a whole book about snow, unless you are an Eskimo, but in this particular episode, at 9 mins in, the book relates how winters in Kent (where the author was brought up) are now much milder, and how there is much less snow around.
Sedgwick was born in 1968, and having heard his mother’s account of the 1963 freeze, he thought he would ask the Met Office for their data on days of snowfall since 1961 for his local weather station at Manston.
He says he entered them on a spreadsheet and produced a graph which showed how snowfall had plummeted.
But is the 1960s a representative place to start from?
The Met Office used to publish an annual “Snow Survey of Great Britain”, beginning in 1946/7. Unfortunately, the last one was published for 1991/2, around the time they decided to concentrate on global warming, at the expense of their day job.
One of the tables for the 1991/2 edition shows the number of days with snow lying at ten representative sites:
Woburn is the nearest we are going to get to Kent, and the data makes interesting reading:
The extreme winters of 1946/7 and 1962/3 stand out like sore thumbs. But it is also clear that most winters in the 1950s and 60s were pretty snowy.
So on the face of it, isn’t Sedgwick right?
But here’s the thing – from 1971 on, there is a noticeable shift. In other words, we are not seeing a gradual trend to milder winters, but a one off shift.
There is certainly no evidence that the 1980s were any less snowy than the 1970s.
Unfortunately, we don’t have data after 1991/2, but it is hard to see that snow days could be any less than the 1970s.
And, of course, we do know that there have been several severe winters lately, notably 2008/9, 2009/10 and 2010/11.
For instance, in December 2010 alone, Woburn, just to the NW of London, appears to have had 12 to 16 days of snow lying.
It also begs the question, what was the situation before 1946.
Unfortunately there is no data to tell us. However, if we look at January mean temperatures not far away in Oxford, we can see that there is little difference between recent years and the 1920s and 30s.
This raises the question whether it was the 1950s and 60s that were actually snowier than normal, rather than the other way round.
If you grew up in the 1950s and 60s, you may be right in believing that there was more snow around then.
But the idea that British winters were always snowy in the past may just be another popular myth.