Return of the Beasty Easty
The return of the beasty easty!
Bit of a busman’s holiday this month, but weather being critical to both agriculture and the tourist industry, it seems wise to mention!
This time last year, we were cruising through the month of February, leaving behind the dark days of winter and heading towards Easter and the beauty of spring, when suddenly, the Beast from the East put in an appearance and caught us all on the hop.
Now, I’ve been weather watching for the last quarter of a century (and a bit!) and I know, as most do, that the weather usually moves west to east in this country. It’s one of the reasons that weather forms such an integral part of our conversation, because frontal systems and jet streams coursing across the Atlantic bring a melange of conditions to Britain and Ireland. Conditions vary dramatically north to south, and west to east; over higher ground and at lower levels giving a rich source of discussion. Our geographical position however, means that we’re rarely subject to the extreme weather conditions found elsewhere. Every now and again though, the weather begins to flow from the east and at that point, all bets are off!
Despite our sentimentality about white Christmases, statistically snow is much more likely in the first three months of the year. And usually occurs for one of two reasons. Approaching cloud and rain from the Atlantic is likely to give snow in the west when there’s cold heavy air sitting over the country. But milder air follows meaning that the snow is short lived. In the east, snow is more likely when there’s high pressure over Scandinavia. A clockwise flow around the weather system gives an east or south-easterly flow with moisture being picked up over the North Sea. This then falls as snow over eastern counties and is more likely to ‘last’ as there are no milder conditions to melt it.
On the 28th of February last year, the snow fell, four inches of it. And very exciting it was too. This was not our ‘usual’ kind of snow, but more of an Alpine snow; one that didn’t follow the usual formula we use to calculate snow depths from precipitation totals. It was a dry snow, very pretty, but far more dangerous than our usual ‘British’ snow.
My son, along with most of Lincolnshire’s students, was delighted to have a ‘snow day’. Usually unexpected and unconfirmed until it’s almost time to leave for school, such events are far more exciting than Christmas, birthdays and eastern put together! He didn’t even enjoy an unscheduled lie in, but was up bright and early volunteering to dog walk with me. By this time, the snow had stopped falling, although it was deep on the ground, the skies were blue and it was a truly beautiful scene in the winter sunshine. As the day wore on, I could see that traffic was moving, albeit gingerly, through the village. With 43 gritters having been out across the county the night before, I assumed that the main roads would likely be clear and made the decision to travel to Skegness to pick up some, probably unnecessary, shopping.
I drove up to the A52 with the utmost care and was relieved to see that the main road was, indeed, clear. Skies were still blue; the sun was shining. And then the wind blew. Suddenly, I could see nothing at all but white. I couldn’t see the front of my car, and nothing through the back window. So disorientating was it, that I didn’t even know where I had been on the road when the squall occurred. Being unable to see, I slowed down and tried to pull into the side out of the way of other traffic. In less than 60 seconds, the snow had drifted against my car and I was trapped; couldn’t move forward or back. I saw a car behind me with its hazards on, and I fought my way through the blowing snow to ask if he was also stuck, and if not, to go around me. Returning to my car, a passing white transit was blown across the road, giving me a glancing blow from its wing mirror.
I recall sitting in my car wondering what to do. Part of me was convinced that another vehicle would career blindly into me and that would be that. Part of me thought I’d be safer leaving the car and trying to walk back. Indecision saw me calling home, for no good reason whatsoever. I wouldn’t have asked anyone else to come out in those conditions.
Suddenly, I was startled by a knock on my passenger window. Even opening it a tiny bit allowed in a scream of wind unlike any I’ve heard before. The man standing there shouted that the snow was drifting too fast to clear, but that he might be able to shift enough snow for my wheels to make purchase on the ground. He told me not to stop if I managed to get moving as I’d end up in a drift again.
In the howling wind and swirling snow, I finally got going and crept up the A52 to the next turn off. It was probably the most terrifying journey of my life; I have never seen or experienced anything like that before or since. Seconds after leaving the main road, the wind dropped, the snow vanished and, in the winter sunshine, it was like nothing had happened.
Later that night, a neighbour asked if his son could park on my drive as he too had been stuck on that stretch of road and had to be dug out. In fact, the A52 made the national news that night with over 50 vehicles coming to grief; some having to spend many hours in their stranded vehicles. Lincolnshire’s farmers came to the rescue with tractors and 4x4s. People opened their houses for warm drinks and refreshments for those who couldn’t continue their journey.
A few weeks later the Beast from the East was growling again. So what caused these extraordinary weather conditions? It was something called Sudden Stratospheric Warming. This occurs, way up in the atmosphere, between 10 and 50km above the earth, when there’s a sudden rise in temperatures; up to 50 degrees Celsius.
This causes the Polar Night jet to wobble as it circles the Arctic and can cause the polar vortex to displace or break up, allowing that cold Arctic air to escape to places it wouldn’t usually be.
There was a SSW in December 2017. Because it occurs so high up in the atmosphere, it doesn’t impact our weather immediately, but some weeks later. That one was undoubtably responsible for the Beast from the East in February last year. This year’s SSW occurred on New Year’s Day, but it’s not the only influencing factor on our weather. In the same way that a paperweight pushed off a table might result in a lot of clearing up, a headache for the dog or a swift catch from a bystander with good reflexes, the SSW is ‘likely’ to result in colder weather conditions for Europe and Russia but we won’t necessarily see a re-run of last year.
But January ended on a fairly chilly note, and there’s high confidence in cold conditions continuing into this month, although it’ll be stormy at times in the north-west.
Roll on summer!