40 years since the summer of 1976

  • Synoptic situation for 1200 Wednesday 16th June. As the jet stream has dipped down across Spain, low pressure has taken an unusually southerly track for June and given rise to some heavy, thundery downpours across England and Wales over the past few days. Image: MeteoGroup.

    Pressure map for 28th June 1976, showing extensive high pressure and a very warm airmass covering the UK. The UK's June record temperature of 35.6C was recorded on this day in Southampton. Image: Wetterzentrale.

    Scenes such as this were common as water supplies in reservoirs dwindled. Image: Lynne Kirton via Wikimedia Creative Commons

  • 40 years since the summer of 1976
    16.06.2016 15:29


    The cool and unsettled theme continued across the UK on Thursday as a slow-moving area of low pressure brought another day of heavy and thundery downpours. These have led to some flash flooding over the past few days, with over 2,500 lightning strikes recorded across the UK on Tuesday alone. This time forty years ago, however, the country was entering what would become a very memorable summer for decades to come.

    The famous summer of 1976 was the UK’s hottest in over 350 years of records, with the Central England Temperature (CET) between June and August averaging 17.8C. The heatwave set in around 20th June as high pressure built in across southern Britain after an unsettled spell mid-month. In the week that followed, the high pressure system built extensively across the UK, and the heat expanded north and west to envelop much of mainland Britain. The hottest period occurred between 23rd June and 7th July, when for fifteen consecutive days the temperature topped 32C (90F) every day at one or more stations in England. It was during this period that the UK’s all-time June temperature record was set, with a high of 35.6C recorded in Southampton on 28th. However, the mercury climbed yet further into early July with Cheltenham recording 35.9C on 3rd, the highest temperature recorded during the heatwave.

    The unrelenting heat, however, was only half the story. Rainfall, having been well below average since spring 1975, became increasingly sparse with none recorded across England and Wales for several weeks. Dorset and Devon were among the driest areas, where no measurable rain fell for 45 days in places. The diminishing water supplies led to the passing of a Drought Act, and water rationing and use of standpipes ensued. In south-east Wales, conditions were so severe that supplies were cut off for  17 hours a day for up to 11 weeks, and 70 companies in the area were ordered to halve water consumption. The harsh conditions took their toll on agriculture with £500 million worth of crops destroyed, resulting in soaring food prices. Subsidence was also a problem as the ground became increasingly parched, and insurance claims soared to £60 million. At the time it was England and Wales’s driest summer since records began in 1766; June to August rainfall averaged just 74mm, a record since surpassed by the dry summer of 1995.

    Back in the UK this week and the thundery showers are set to ease over the coming days as low pressure moves away into Europe, allowing a brief ridge of high pressure to build in. However, there are no signs yet of any prolonged spells of fine and warm weather developing, with further rain set to spread in from the west early next week.

    By: Billy Payne