Weather: Could every cloud have a sinister lining?
So, farewell 2012 and, meteorologically speaking, good riddance, says David Randall for whom our weather is beyond a joke
When it came to weather, my parents were like those two little figures who alternate in emerging from the barometrically sensitive model house. My mother was the gloomy one, ever-armed with umbrella (and Pac-a-mac, for good measure), ever-ready with gloomy forebodings ("Sun before seven, rain by 11" was a favourite way to greet a cheery morning). My father was the sunny type, able to discern patches of incipient blue in the most leaden skies and who would describe each fall of rain, however prolonged or torrential, as "a clearing-up shower". Whatever it would have taken to dampen his spirits, the British climate never came up with it.
I inherited his eye for a silver lining, his dismissal of an ill wind. But 2012 tested my optimism to the limit. It may, according to the Met Office's data, have fallen a few raindrops short of 2000's record wet, but in that year the rains were confined to April and autumn, and the May-August period was pretty dry and warm. By contrast, 2012 dripped on and on from April to December like some clubland bore. I have never been so glad to see the back of a weather year as I was to see the end of this one. It was the worst of my 62-year lifetime – not just because it was drenching and dull, but because it did things it shouldn't do with a consistency that suggested something more was going on.
Britons are used to unpredictable weather, but what we now appear to have – year upon year – is weather not merely unsettled itself, but unsettling for us. It is like an old friend whose eccentricity has hitherto been rather charming and harmless, but whose behaviour is now more erratic and disturbing. And 2012 was the year when I, ever the optimist, began to wonder if our weather was passing from endearing oddity into some darker phase.
The year began, as so many bad things do, in a mild, unassuming, almost surreptitious way. January was the UK's fourth-sunniest since 1929, an eventuality well within the confines of normality, as was the snowy, frosty interlude at the start of February. But, in the background, was something beyond the bounds of seasonal variation: the prolonged lack of rain affecting the Midlands, East Anglia, and the South. A drought summit was held on 20 February. In February! And there was talk, in this least summery of months, of hose-pipe bans and other restrictions, which were, in due course, introduced. Watering your primroses, gasping away in their pre-Easter pots, became forbidden.
And then there was that most disturbing March, the second half of which was freakishly warm and dry. It was England's sunniest in 83 years, the warmest across the UK since 1957, and there were wildfires in Surrey, south Wales, and the Scottish borders. In West Sussex, I saw our lagoon lowered to the levels of a hot August, and the area's little streams (known locally as rifes) reduced to desiccated beds. And all before the clocks had gone forward.
April – colder than March for the first time since 1998 – was the wettest across the UK since records began. Enter then the first bad floods of the year, and they, clearing them up, or bracing ourselves for fresh ones, never really went away. May broke the freakish pattern – slightly warmer, sunnier, and drier than normal. Then June cast its pall – the wettest in England and Wales since 1766, the dullest in 83 years, and floods in places where you least expect them, such as Bognor Regis, normally one of the country's weather champions. July carried on the bad work, but rallied at the end, with fine weather in the southern half of the country that lasted through the Olympics. Last September was the coolest for 18 years, and the rains began again, bringing more floods in October, November and December. All in all, 2012 was a mere 6.6mm of rain short of the wettest year of all.
Of course, you may have got lucky – your wedding day fine; your holiday in west Wales coinciding with a rare burst of dry, sunny days. And you may have made your home in an area safe from all but the most apocalyptic inundation. And yet, the extent and frequency of floods, and unrelenting greyness of the skies from April to late July, gnawed away with the idea that we were having more than just a bad year. Is it possible that our always wayward weather has changed into something volatile and capricious – menacing, even?
That sounds, and probably is, too melodramatic, and at this point, when all of us begin to feel the beginnings of panicky despair, we are normally calmed by someone dredging through our past weather for precedents. What about 1954, they might say – a summer so bad that in some parts April was the sunniest month of the year, and, in London, there were a mere 28 days when the temperature crept above 21C? Or 1903, a summer of rain and gales followed by the wettest October in England and Wales since 1766? Or 1931, when March and October provided the only respite from cool, wet, and windy weather which made this possibly the worst summer of the 20th century?
Articles full of such history-heavy wisdom appear frequently in the wake of extreme weather. I've written enough of them myself. But there are patterns emerging which seem beyond the reach of the usual reassurances. There is the plain data: four of the five wettest years in recorded weather history have occurred since 2000, and, according to the BBC, days when there are especially heavy falls of rain have become more common since 1960. And there is, almost all over the UK, the state of our fields and pastures – so sodden, as The Spectator's Charles Moore has pointed out, that they are virtual no-go areas to people and machines.
It's early January. Of course there will be drier, warmer days ahead. But, as you watch, month after month, the news pictures which have become repetitive to the point of cliché – the same railway line in Devon washed away, Worcester Racecourse submerged yet again, and the streets of York filled with dirty water for the umpteenth time Ω you can't help but wonder if something fundamental is at work. It's all very disconcerting. Are we, in weather terms, beginning to hear the town-hall clock strike 13?
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