Victorian Blizzard Chaos

  • Synoptic chart for midnight on December 20th 1881, showing the slow moving deep low pressure system tracking slowly eastwards close to southern England. Gale force easterly winds occurred on its northern flank, along with blizzard conditions. Source.

  • Victorian Blizzard Chaos
    16.01.2015 15:58

    Over the last couple of weeks, the UK has been bombarded by a rapid succession of deep Atlantic storms, with gusts of over 100mph being reported on several days within the last week across the north of Scotland. From this weekend and into next week, we now have to look to the north for our weather, with the likelihood of snow and frost. Away from the mountain tops in Scotland, Wales and the north of England, it is rare for the UK to experience heavy snow and severe gales at the same time. However, back in late Victorian times, a combination of these weather elements between 19th and 21st January 1881 led to a paralysing snow event of unusual severity. It was southern parts of England that were worst affected.

    The preceding December of 1880 was rather benign with mild south-westerly winds, offering little clue of what was to come during the following month. After January 5th high pressure transferred northwards to be positioned to the north of Scotland, with bitterly cold conditions and persistent, severe frosts ensuing. However, it was during January 17th and 18th when things started to get interesting. High pressure intensified across Scotland, while a low pressure system tracked north-eastwards from the Azores towards the English Channel. The difference in air pressure across the UK strengthened the easterly winds, especially across southern areas, with a severe wind chill developing.

    A band of heavy snow eased northwards into southern England and south Wales on January 18th and remained here into 19th. As the depression approached the south coast of England it slowed down and proceeded to stall close to the Isle of Wight for about 24 hours, before resuming its track north-eastwards. This rather unusual pause in its track was key to explaining the severity of this event. It meant that the band of snow became trapped across southern parts of England, south Wales and East Anglia for a couple of days, bringing a prolonged snow storm of epic proportions. More than 15cm (6 inches of snow) was recorded across most of southern England and south Wales. Parts of Dartmoor, Dorset and Hampshire reported more than 45cm of level snow, with a level depth of 85cm (over 3 feet) measured on the Isle of Wight! Even in London, between 15 and 25cm accumulated. And all this is before the severity of the snow drifts were considered!

    There was chaos on the road and rail networks for days after the event, with transport networks dislocated by the drifting powder snow. Giant drifts filled railway cuttings, burying entire trains, which had previously become stuck in more minor snow accumulations. Even without the snow, this event would have been remarkable for the intensity of the easterly winds, an unusual direction for southern England to experience gales from. Thousands of trees were uprooted over East Anglia and many roofs and chimney stacks were damaged. Tidal flooding occurred in London with homes close to the river swamped, as a combination of strong easterly winds and a high Spring tide forced a surge of water up the Thames. 

    Fortunately such prolonged and severe blizzards are rare in the UK. During next week it is likely that some of us will see snow, and all of us will experience the notable drop in temperature. Keep up to date with the latest forecast on MeteoGroup’s website

    By: Matthew Dobson