January 1982

Record cold and snow
by Philip Eden

Disruptive snowstorms in the UK during the last ten years can be counted on the fingers of one hand, in marked contrast to the 1980s when they were two a penny. One of the most interesting winters that decade happened exactly twenty years ago, in 1981-1982, when many parts of the country experienced record-breaking temperatures and unprecedented snowfall. December 1981 was described here a few weeks ago; now it is the turn of January 1982.

A brief milder interlude lasted until January 4, but a combination of heavy rain and melting snow led to serious flooding along the Yorkshire Ouse, the Severn and the Trent. Arctic winds swept southwards across the country between the 3rd and 5th, and heavy snow fell across a wide area of central and eastern Scotland and northeast England. At Braemar, Aberdeenshire, level snow lay 40cm deep on the morning of the 5th, and at nearby Balmoral Castle there was snow on the ground continuously from December 4 until January 28 - a total of 56 consecutive days.

The greatest disruption occurred on the 8th and 9th when an Atlantic depression moved into the Southwest Approaches; heavy snow accompanied by a gale force easterly wind produced one of the most severe blizzards of the century across southern England, the Midlands, Wales and Ireland. Throughout the snowfall, which lasted over 36 hours, temperatures were between -2 and -4C so the snow was dry and powdery and drifted freely in the wind. Transport services were completely dislocated over a wide area and millions of commuters failed to get to work in London two days running. South Wales was isolated for three days and troops were brought in to deliver essentials and to help clear roads. Worst hit were Gloucestershire, Monmouthshire and Glamorgan, where level snow lay over 60cm deep with drifts 6 metres high. Milder air reached Cornwall and south Devon, but heavy rain falling onto frozen ground in mid-Devon, south Somerset and west Dorset created extensive glazed ice in these areas.

Following the blizzard the cold tightened its grip. Early on the morning of the 10th the temperature fell to -26.1C at Newport in Shropshire, breaking the record for England which had been set just four weeks earlier. In Scotland, Braemar recorded -27.2C on the same morning, equalling the UK's all-time record which had been set way back in 1895. The afternoon maximum temperature at Braemar was -19.1C, another new record. As far south as Wiltshire daytime maxima below -10C were recorded on the 13th as freezing fog blanketed many areas.

Warmer weather returned after mid-month and the rest of the winter was mild and snow-free. As a consequence, the winter quarter of 1981-82 (Dec, Jan and Feb) ranked only ninth coldest during the twentieth century with a Central England temperature (CET) of 2.6C (36.7F), but the CET for the first half of the winter was 0.1C (32.2F), almost on a par with the infamous winter of 1962-63.