• Sryan Bruen

A history of November cold spells

Severe cold weather is unusual at any time of year in the UK & Ireland due to our location beside the North Atlantic Ocean where we are dominated by a prevalent westerly, zonal airflow bringing mild airmasses from off the ocean. This is especially the case in late autumn and early winter when the North Atlantic jet stream is powering up on average quickly due to the increasing temperature gradient between the tropics and the pole. The continent is also slowly continuing to cool down from the summer season so easterly flows in November/December tend to not be as cold as they would be later in the season like say February. This has become even more apparent due to climate change as summer warmth tends to hold on longer with patterns becoming more blocked.

However, despite all the above, this is not to say that severe cold or snowy weather hasn't or can't occur during the month of November as there have been various impressive periods of such in the UK & Ireland of years past. In this blog post, I will be discussing about some of the most exceptional November cold spells we have had since 1870.

1890 - Icy end to November beckons a severe cold December

Whilst somewhat less remarkable than the 1919 spell, late November 1890 still holds a special place of its own in the record of November cold spells as whilst overall November 1890 wasn't exceptionally cold, it ended with bitterly cold northeasterly winds which gave ice day conditions and record breaking low temperatures to southeast England. This would even continue into the coldest December on record for England with frequent easterly winds which was also very cloudy including no sunshine all month at Westminster, London or 0.3 hours at Kew Observatory.

There was plenty of snowfall from the spell across southeastern and eastern England during the final few days of November including 22 inches at Rochester, 17 inches at Maidstone, 11 inches at Canterbury and 8 inches at Boston. Greenwich reported a maximum temperature of only -2.8°C all day on 28th November 1890 and a minimum temperature of -7.6°C on the 29th which is very remarkable for November. Similarly, Margate recorded a max temperature of only -2.9°C on the 28th. -17.8°C was reported in Surrey, although this value is disregarded from official records as it is of dubious authenticity. The daily CET for 28th November 1890 was -2.5°C and there were 5 consecutive days below zero.

NCEP 500mb height reanalysis for 27th November 1890 showing an exceptional cold easterly flow across southern parts of the UK.

1919 - mid-November freeze

Due to the transitional nature of the month, one would typically expect the coldest weather of November to occur in the final few days. This was not the case in 1919. November 1919 was one of the coldest Novembers on record for all regions of the UK and was by far the coldest on record for Ireland in a monthly series since 1900. The Central England Temperature for the month was only 3.3°C, the 8th coldest since 1659. The most impressive feat of the month was the exceptional cold spell that occurred mid-month which brought record-breaking low temperatures that stand to the current day and even widespread heavy snowfalls to low levels.

-23.3°C was recorded at Braemar on 14th November 1919 which is the lowest November temperature on record for the UK to present and is lower than the absolute minimum temperature for most winters and years too. In fact, there have been only 10 years since 1875 with a minimum temperature lower than that anywhere in the UK in any month. It was the joint lowest temperature in the country between 1895 and 1955 for any month. As of writing this post in November 2021, the UK hasn't seen a minimum temperature at or below -23.3°C since December 1995. The fact this temperature was achieved in mid-November is one of the most fascinating extremes about the UK. This wasn't the only instance of -20°C either and that the Braemar value was a complete oddity as Perth also fell to -21.7°C on the same night whilst West Linton and Balmoral fell to -21.1°C. Last but not least on the Scottish low temperatures, -22.8°C was recorded again at Braemar on the 15th November. -12.2°C was recorded at Lisburn on 15th November 1919 which stands as the lowest November temperature for Northern Ireland to present. -11.1°C was achieved at Markree Castle on the same day which until 2010 (more on that later) was the lowest November temperature on record in the Republic of Ireland.

As mentioned, the cold wasn't the only noteworthy thing about the exceptional November 1919 cold spell. The snow was also notable with a foot of snow reported on Dartmoor, 17 inches at Balmoral and 8 inches at Edinburgh. Snow lay to a depth of 42cm at Braemar and lasted from the 11th 'til the end of the month. There was widespread snowfall to lowland areas too and it wasn't restricted to high ground, including Dublin and Blackpool - thundersnow was reported at the latter.

NCEP 500mb height reanalysis for 12th November 1919 showing a severe cold northeasterly airflow giving plentiful snow showers across the UK.

Children having snowball fights in Dublin in mid-November 1919. Credit: Irish Life.

The Times on 12th November 1919 mentioning the thundersnow at Blackpool.

1952 - The cold autumn continues

November continued the colder than average conditions that were very persistent through the autumn of 1952 which was the second coldest of the century behind only 1919. It was also likely the snowiest November since 1919 across England with considerable snowfall for the time of year towards the end of the month.

Snow lay to a depth of 4-6 inches in Aberdeenshire on the 23rd. There were successive falls of snow in a belt covering parts of East Anglia, the Midlands and south Wales in the last four days of the month. The snow settled on the ground and level snow was 10 inches at Whipsnade with drifts up to 8 ft. There was 6 inches of snow lying at Tredegar from the 27th to the 30th and a train ran into a 10 foot drift at Pen-y-Wern on the 29th.

It was the coldest November since 1923 in Scotland and for England & Wales since 1925. The CET for the month was only 4.2°C. The max temperature at Dyce on the 25th November was -5.0°C. Dalwhinnie had a min temperature of -15.0°C on the 25th whilst Kielder Castle had -12.2°C on the same day, the latter was probably England's lowest November temperature since 1912.

NCEP 500mb height reanalysis for 27th November 1952 showing a cold northerly flow feeding in snow showers with low pressure to the south.

1965 - Snow galore for the north

Whilst perhaps less known for its cold spell, November 1965 was an exceptionally snowy month with numerous snowstorms late in the month for northern parts of the UK. The CET for the month was only 4.5°C making it the coldest since 1952 but in Scotland it was the joint coldest since 1919. The colder than average conditions were the result of more frequent than usual easterly winds. -13.9°C was recorded at Braemar on 15th November whilst Ross-on-Wye recorded a maximum temperature of -2°C on the same day with freezing fog and Abingdon didn't get above -3°C. Kew had its lowest daily mean temperatures for so early in the season since 1887 on the 14th and 15th.

The first snow event arrived on 16th November as a large depression approached the south of Ireland. Precipitation fell generally as snow at first with accumulations reaching 5-10cm for lower levels of central and northern England whilst these were more 10-20cm for Scotland and the Pennines. The snow turned to heavy rain as milder air invaded the south leading to floods eventually after several days of persistent rain whilst Scotland remained in the cold air due to strong high latitude blocking. The snow from this event in eastern Scotland tended to stick around for the rest of November and being topped up by succeeding events in the final week. The low was forced southeastward by the 22nd into the continent and northeasterly winds brought cold air back with snow showers being widespread including a depth of 15cm at Scarborough, 10cm at Acklington and 5cm in parts of southeast England. Daytime temperatures hovered around freezing and gave a lot of ice and slush around Newcastle with floods freezing over.

NCEP 500mb height reanalysis for 21st November 1965 showing a northeasterly airflow across the UK & Ireland.

A series of depressions during the final week of November 1965 brought snowstorms to the northeast of the UK whilst it was too mild in the south of the country for snow to fall. There was considerable drifting with 15 foot drifts reported in the Durham area and 7 foot drifts in the Lake District with thunderstorms embedded. The north Midlands reported depths up to 3.6 inches and 22 inches in Durham by the 29th. Newcastle University reported a depth of 28cm. These were the most significant snowfalls in the region since 1947. There was up to 24 days during November 1965 where snow fell in Scotland. Durham had 13 days of snow lying through the month compared with the November average of only 1 day.

Deep snow drifts in Yorkshire in late November 1965.

NCEP 500mb height reanalysis for 29th November 1965 showing deep areas of low pressure causing significant drifting of snow in the northeast of the UK.

1980 - Channel Isles' cold and snowy Bonfire Night

A very early push of cold polar continental air via easterly winds arrived to southern parts of the UK on 5th and 6th November 1980. This gave notably cold conditions for the time of year and even some fairly significant snowfalls, again notable for the time of year.

Jersey Airport recorded a max temperature of 0.1°C on the 5th and St. Helier had 8cm of snow which is believed to have been without parallel for the time of year in the Channel Isles. Snow fell quite extensively in the southeast of England too on the 6th and 7th. Sharp frosts followed with -6.6°C at Bastreet on the 11th, quite early to be seeing temperatures that low in the southwest of England.

NCEP 500mb height reanalysis for 5th November 1980 showing an easterly flow across southern parts of the UK as a 1040mb anticyclone sits to north of Scotland.

1985 - Coldest November temperature since 1919

With a CET of 4.1°C, November 1985 was the coldest November in Central England and indeed the UK since 1925. The culprit to this was the frequency of northerly and easterly winds with various snowfalls and severe frosts with the final day of November giving the lowest November temperature in the country since 1919; -20.9°C was recorded at Kinbrace. Shawbury recorded -12.2°C on the 29th November which until 2010 was a record for the station and lowest since 1912 in England. On the 19th November, parts of southeast and southwest England remained near or below freezing all day.

NCEP 500mb height reanalysis for 19th November 1985 showing an easterly airflow across the UK with near ice day conditions in southern regions.

Whitby reported 10cm of level snow on the 12th. Glenlivet had 19cm of level snow on the 29th whilst Lerwick 15cm and Dyce 14cm. Jersey had a covering of 12cm on the 20th. Widespread parts of Scotland had at least 10 days of snow falling through November 1985 with 14 days of snow lying at Grantown-on-Spey. Snow fell on 5 days in parts of London though accumulations were small.

NCEP 500mb height reanalysis for 26th November 1985 showing a northeasterly beginning to develop.

1993 - The most recent sub 5.0°C CET November

As the title suggests, November 1993 was the last time that the November CET fell below 5.0°C and with 4.6°C, it was the coldest since 1985. Mid-month brought cold polar continental air via easterly winds to the UK & Ireland courtesy of a Scandinavian high. There were some notably low temperatures and some quite early significant snowfalls for the time of year but it was one of the less impressive November cold spells.

1 to 2cm was widely reported in eastern parts of England on the 21st with 7cm depth at Charing. 19cm was reported at Inchmarlo on the 23rd as further snow showers fell. Eastern parts of Ireland also reported falling snow including Dublin Airport but accumulations were small. Snowfalls were largely light in general and the most notable aspect of the spell was how early in the season that the snowfalls occurred along with quite low temperatures. Snow lasted on the ground for 4 days in north London.

Grantown-on-Spey and Braemar reported a minimum temperature of -14.8°C on 24th November 1993, the lowest in the UK since 1985.

NCEP 500mb height reanalysis for 21st November 1993 showing polar continental air being advected westward through the UK via an easterly airflow giving some early snowfalls.

2010 - The modern big freeze

Can't have a compilation of November cold spells without mentioning the famous November 2010 cold spell which would lead into the coldest December on record for Ireland and Scotland and coldest since 1890 for England.

Wales set a new November minimum temperature record on 28th November 2010 with -18.0°C at Llysdinham. This was also its lowest temperature for any month since 1982. Northern Ireland had its lowest November temperature since 1919 with -11.9°C. England had its lowest November temperature since 1912 with -13.5°C. -11.5°C was recorded at Clonroche on 29th November making it a new November minimum temperature record for the Republic of Ireland. The same place had a maximum temperature of -4.5°C on the 28th also which is the lowest on record for November in Ireland and possibly the lowest for any month since 1979. The maximum temperature at Loch Glascarnoch on the 30th was only -6.7°C. Wales also set November record for low maximum temperature on the 28th with -5.6°C and Northern Ireland had its lowest November max since 1915.

There was also widespread snowfalls starting on 24th November in eastern Scotland and northeastern England as cold air was unleashed from the northeast directly from Siberia via a stubborn Greenland high. 58cm was accumulated at Balmoral and 55cm at Westgate. The heaviest of the snow for southern areas tended to come through in the first few days of December with the UK almost entirely covered in lying snow by 2nd December. Similar was to be had in Ireland with as much as 21cm of snow lying by 2nd December at Casement Aerodrome. However, whilst depths weren't extreme, there was widespread lying snow in eastern parts of Ireland as soon as 27th November. There was plenty of thunderstorms embedded within these snowfalls. Overall, these were the most significant November snowfalls since 1919 for eastern Ireland and 1965 for the northeast of the UK. It was the earliest point in the season that widespread snow had been seen since 1993 - it was also the coldest November since 1993 in the UK in spite of very mild weather early on in the month and is a reflection of just how exceptional this cold spell was. It was the coldest November since 1985 in Ireland.

*The CET for 27th November to 27th December 2010 was -1.5°C, colder than any 31-day period since 1962-63.*

NCEP 500mb height reanalysis for 27th November 2010 showing a long fetched severely cold and snowy northeasterly airflow and the North Atlantic completely blocked with a very negative North Atlantic Oscillation.

Postcard snowy scene in Rathmines, Dublin on 28th November 2010. Credit: 2c.

A snow covered Alnwick Moor on 27th November 2010. Credit: Mel Huitson.

Record November minimum temperatures for the UK and Ireland. Data: Met Office and Met Éireann.

Record November low maximum temperatures for the UK & Ireland. *-11.1 was also recorded at Braemar on 29 November 1912. Credit: Met Office and Met Éireann.

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