The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Land + People

Weather is not the same as climate. The weather at a place is the state of the atmosphere there at a given time or over a short period. The weather of the British Isles is notoriously variable. The climate of a place or region, on the other hand, represents the average weather conditions through the year. In every part of the British Isles obvious changes are taking place as winter passes into spring, spring into summer, and so through autumn to winter.

The position of the British Isles within latitudes 50° to 61°N is a basic factor in determining the main characteristics of the climate. Within the limits of the general climatic type — maritime, temperate with no dry season and with summers only moderately warm — there is, however, room for considerable variation between one region and another.

The climate of any place results from the interaction of a number of determining factors, of which the most important are latitude, distance from the sea, relief and the direction of the prevailing winds. These factors must be distinguished from the actual features of the climate, such as temperature, precipitation, wind, sunshine, fog, the humidity of the air.

Britain has a generally mild and temperate climate, which is dominated by marine influences and is rainy and equable. Britain’s climate is much milder than that in any other country in the same latitudes. This is due partly to the presence of the North Atlantic Drift which begins as the Gulf Stream, in the Gulf of Mexico, crosses the Atlantic Ocean, and so reaches the shores of Europe as a warm current, and partly to the fact that north-west Europe lies in a predominantly westerly wind-belt. This means that not only do marine influences warm the land in winter and cool it in summer, but also that the winds blowing over the Atlantic have a similar effect and at the same time carry large amounts of moisture which is deposited over the land as rain. Britain’s climate is generally one of mild winters and cool summers, with rain throughout the year, although there are considerable regional changes.

Latitudes determine the main characteristics of the climate. Temperature, the most important climatic element, depends not only on the angle at which the sun’s rays strike the earth’s surface, but also on the duration of daylight. The greater the angle of the sun above the horizon, the greater is the heat received and the length of the period between sunrise and sunset. The length of day at London ranges from 16 hours 35 minutes on 21 June to 7 hours 50 minutes on 21 December.

The sea greatly modifies the climate of the British Isles, for their relatively small area and the indented nature of the coastline allow maritime influences to penetrate well inland. The sea, whose waters have a higher specific heat than the rocks of the land surface, warms up more slowly, but also cools down more slowly than does the land. Consequently, in summer the land tends to be warmer than the sea, and in winter the converse is true. This moderating effect of the sea, is, in fact, the cause of the relatively small seasonal contrasts experienced in Britain.

The prevailing winds in the British Isles are westerlies. They are extremely moist, as a result of their long passage over the warm waters of the North Atlantic. On their arrival over Britain, the winds are forced upwards, and as a result large-scale condensation occurs, clouds form and precipitation follows, especially over the mountainous areas.

Relief is the most important factor controlling the distribution of temperature and precipitation within Britain. The actual temperatures experienced in the hilly and mountainous parts are considerably lower than those in the lowlands. The effect of relief on precipitation is even more striking. Average annual rainfall in Britain is about 1,100 mm. But the geographical distribution of rainfall is largely determined by topography, the mountainous areas of the west and north having far more rainfall than the lowlands of the south and east. The western Scottish Highlands, the Lake District, the Welsh uplands and parts of Devon and Cornwall receive more than 2,000 mm of rainfall each year. The greatest annual rainfall recorded in Britain was 6,527 mm at Sprinkling Tarn (Cumbria) in 1954. Much of this precipitation takes the form of snow, and on some of the highest summits of the north a layer of snow may persist for several months of the year.

In contrast, the eastern lowlands, lying in a rain-shadow area, are much drier and usually receive little precipitation. Much of East Anglia has a rainfall of less than 700 mm each year, and snow falls on only 15 to 18 days on the average. The lowest annual rainfall was recorded at Margate (Kent) in 1921 (236 mm).

Rainfall is fairly well distributed throughout the year, but, on average, March to June are the driest months and October to January the wettest.

Ireland is in rather a different category, for here the rain-bearing winds have not been deprived of their moisture, and, although low-lying, much of the Irish plain receives up to 1,200 mm of rainfall per year, usually in the form of steady and prolonged drizzle. Snow, on the other hand, is rare, owing to the warming effects of the North Atlantic Drift.

Because of the North Atlantic Drift and the predominantly maritime air masses that effect the British Isles, the range in temperature throughout the year is never very great. The annual mean temperature in England and Wales is about 10 °C, in Scotland and Northern Ireland about 9 °C. The mean January temperature for London is 4 °C, and the mean July temperature 17 CC.

Near sea level in the west the mean annual temperature ranges from 8 °C in the Hebrides to 11 °G in the extreme south-west of England. July and August are the warmest months of the year on average and January and February the coldest. The mean summer temperatures throughout Britain increase from north to south.

The mean monthly temperature in the extreme north (the Shetlands) ranges from 3 °C during the winter (December, January and February) to 12 °C during the summer (June, July and August). The corresponding figures for the Isle of Wight, in the extreme south, are 5 °G and 16 °C.

During a normal summer the temperature may occasionally rise above 30 °C in the south. The highest shade temperature ever recorded in Britain was about 37 °C in August 1911 in Northamptonshire, Surrey and Kent. Minimum temperature of—10 °C may occur on a still, clear winter’s night in inland area. Lower temperatures are rare. The lowest temperature (—27.2 °C) was recorded at Braemar (the Grampians) in February 1895 and January 1982.

The distribution of sunshine shows a general decrease from south to north, a decrease from the coast inland and a decrease with latitude. During the months of longest daylight (May, June and July) the mean daily duration of sunshine varies from five hours in northern Scotland to eight hours in the Isle of Wight. During November, December and January (the months of shortest daylight) sunshine is at minimum, with an average of half an hour a day in some parts of the Scottish Highlands and two hours a day on the south coast of England. Generally the coasts are everywhere sunnier than neighbouring inland districts. Ireland is subject to frequent cloud and records little sunshine.

In direct contrast with climate, in which short-term variations disappear with the calculation of averages, the weather of the British Isles is extremely variable. Not only is it liable to day-to-day changes — some whole seasons are markedly wet, markedly dry, unusually cold, or unusually warm.

Spring is normally Britain’s driest season, even though April is by tradition showery. Cold weather usually lasts no later than mid-April, and there are frequently some very warm days during the second half of the month. By late spring daytime temperatures rise considerably, and the thermometer may even reach 21—24 °C over a wide area.

June is the brightest month of the year for Britain in general. Rainfall tends to increase during July and August, partly because Atlantic depressions come nearer to the coast during these months and partly also because air, as it becomes warmed, is capable of holding more moisture. Late summer is often noted for very warm weather, and this may continue into September.

North and north-west winds often bring heavy falls of snow to north Britain during late October and November, but they are usually short-lived.

Continental air sometimes reaches the British Isles in summer as a warm, dry airstream, but it is more frequently experienced in winter when it crosses the North Sea and brings bitter weather to eastern and inland districts of Great Britain.

In fine, still weather there is occasionally haze in summer and mist and fog in winter.

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