Cold enough for statues to wrap up, for snow to fall in central London... yet it's one of the warmest years on record

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The Independent Online
Much of lowland Britain received its first snowfall of the winter yesterday, but the world as a whole remained over- heated this year. Frost and patchy fog is forecast for the last weekend of 1996 - a year which is turning out to be one of the 10 warmest in a record of global temperatures stretching back over 140 years.

With almost all the data for the calendar year gathered in by the Meteorological Office's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction in Berkshire, it emerges that six of the ten hottest years are from the Nineties and three from the Eighties. This adds to scientists' confidence that they are witnessing a man-made warming caused by a build-up of heat- trapping gases - a trend that could have great impact on farming, water resources and wildlife within a few decades.

The Hadley Centre takes data from more than 1,000 weather stations around the world. "The run of warm years is continuing," one of its climatologists, David Parker, said. Together with the University of East Anglia, the centre keeps temperature records stretching back to1860, using observations from ships and buoys as well as on-land stations.

The record shows 1995 as the hottest overall year, followed by 1990, then 1991 and 1994; 1996 is expected to be the eighth warmest. From January to November, temperatures around the planet were on average 0.23C above the long-term averages for the 30 years between 1961 and 1990. Dr Parker said that with year after year of temperatures well above average, confidence was growing that this was the "signal" of the man-made climate change forecast to accelerate into the next century.

"The overall temperature trend may be upwards ... but there will still be cooler years and even cooler decades because of the large natural variability in the climate," he added.

The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, produced chiefly by burning fossil fuels and forests, have been rising steadily. As a result, the atmosphere's balance of heat- radiation shifts, warming the air near the surface and cooling higher altitudes.

This trend could have great impacts on farming, water resources and wildlife within a few decades, but it seemed of little relevance to an icy, post-festive Britain yesterday as snow moved south from Scotland. By midday, Automobile Association patrols had rescued 5,000 stranded motorists.