By Paul Homewood
h/t Ian Magness
Britain has been battered by floods and parched by drought in recent years – but our Victorian ancestors didn’t escape weather extremes.
A project digitising the Met Office’s weather archive has found that several records, particularly those for dry weather, were set much earlier than previously thought.
Scientists at the University of Reading asked the public for help digitally transcribing 130 year’s worth of handwritten rainfall observations from across the UK and Ireland.
Thousands of volunteers in the “Rainfall Rescue” project studied records from between 1677 and 1960, based on rain gauges located in almost every town and village across England and Wales.
Records go as far back as 1836
The project, launched in March 2020, has extended the rainfall data available in the official Met Office national record, meaning it now goes back to 1836 rather than 1862.
New records include England’s driest May, originally thought to be May 2020 but now believed to be May 1844, when the country saw just 8.3mm of rain.
The overall driest year on record, previously thought to be 1887, is now recorded as 1855.
November and December 1852 were also exceptionally wet months, with the year seeing the wettest November on record for many regions in southern England.
1852 was also the wettest year overall for parts of the UK including Oxfordshire, where there was significant flooding.
The year’s floods were known as the “Duke of Wellington floods” as they coincided with the military hero’s funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
Rainfall methodically recorded
Victorian “observers” methodically chronicled the weather, with rainfall particularly important because of its impact on crops and food supplies.
Britain’s Victorian ancestors also endured weather extremes, with the Royal Suspension Chain Pier in Brighton destroyed during a storm in 1896 CREDIT: Digital Vision Vectors
Rainfall has been monitored systematically in the UK since the 1860s, when George Symons established the British Rainfall Organisation, later absorbed into the Met Office, but most records made before 1960 were still in paper form.
The 65,000 paper records held in the Met Office National Meteorological Archive were scanned during 2019 and many were written in ornate handwriting meaning humans were needed to transcribe.
Professor Ed Hawkins, of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading, said he had expected the project to take months but high levels of interest from the public meant it was completed in days.
He said: “A lot of the dry records that we’ve got have been rewritten, and that’s purely because our climate is getting wetter now.
“Just like all the cold records are back in the past, it’s the same with the dry records, because the climate’s got wetter.
“Most of the wet records are more recent – the exception to that was 1852 which was an extremely wet November, and I’m sure at the time they wondered what was going on.
“That would be a stand-out month for that period. Now it wouldn’t look so unusual.”
The UK’s average temperature is thought to have risen by 1.5C since the pre-industrial period, he said, and the extra data “helps us better understand the long-term trends towards the dramatic changes we’re seeing today”.
There is nothing surprising about any of this, because we see similar trends in the England & Wales Rainfall Series, which dates back to 1766.
However Hawkins is being extremely devious and dishonest, when he claims:
“A lot of the dry records that we’ve got have been rewritten, and that’s purely because our climate is getting wetter now.
“Just like all the cold records are back in the past, it’s the same with the dry records, because the climate’s got wetter”
It is true that the UK is wetter on average:
But this is largely due to Scotland. In England, the long term average has changed little since the 1870s:
The major change is that drought years are very much a thing of the past, which in turn pushes up the average. This does not mean England’s climate is becoming more extreme, quite the contrary.
Now consider this Hawkins claim:
“Most of the wet records are more recent”
When we actually examine the data, we find it is not only baseless, but grossly misleading.
Since 2002, only one year, 2012, makes it into the ten wettest.
And in terms of wettest months, only two months occurred in the last decade, January 2014 and February 2020. Given that there have been 29 months over 150mm since 1836, this is close to average:
There certainly have been much more extreme interludes. For instance the 1860s, when three months made the list. Unquestionably the most extreme decade though was the 1910s, with five such months – 1911, 1912, 1914, 1915 and 1918.
1929 was also a remarkable year, with November and December receiving 173mm and 163mm of rainfall respectively.
The wettest month in recent years was November 2009, with 170mm. But that was only the sixth wettest month on record. By far the wettest was October 1903, with 191mm.
By every measure Hawkins claims don’t stand up to scrutiny, for England at least. It may be that rainfall is now more extreme in Scotland, but it is dishonest to pretend that the whole country is similarly affected.