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Best records since weather began

THIS YEAR, we had the wettest April since records began. Last August was the second hottest in history, but 1997 gave us the wettest summer since 1985. Average temperatures in Britain last year were the third warmest on record, and this January and February were the warmest and wettest first two months of the year in the United States since records began. The northern climate in the 1990s has been warmer on average than at any time since the Middle Ages, and last week saw the cloudiest Thursday in Basingstoke since Ian McCaskill retired.

I made up the last one, but all the rest come from reliable sources and they raise two important questions: are we genuinely experiencing a remarkable spate of record-breaking weather, and if we are, is it a sign of an irrevocable change in the earth's climate?

"It's a bit like athletics, isn't it?" said the man at the Met Office. "With the weather, there are so many records that can be broken. It's not so surprising."

With heightened interest in the weather and greater speed of data processing, meteorologists have been able to supply an increasingly hungry press and public with weather stories.

It wasn't the warmest January ever in the US, nor the wettest February, but lump the figures together and you get the warmest and wettest opening two months of the year, and another record tumbles. A few years ago, only absolute records - hottest ever, or rainiest since records began - would make the national press. Now we regularly see "warmest for 10 years" stories reported as though they were significant.

But it is getting warmer. The first six months of 1998 were, across the world, the warmest since reliable records began in 1860. Looking back further, however, there is strong evidence that it has been getting warmer since the late 17th century when the Little Ice Age began to abate.

According to the Met Office's records of average temperatures in central England since 1659, 10 of the 20 coldest years on record happened in the last quarter of the 17th century. On the other hand, 1686 was warmer than 1992, so the general warming over the past 300 years is no guarantee of good weather.

If you want a real conversation-stopper try this one: August 1997 may have been the second hottest ever in England and Wales, but it was only the 132nd driest over the past 339 years.