UK weather: Recent extremes 'not unusual, but climate change makes them seem so'

‘We have seen spring starting earlier, and we might have just got used to that – so it feels more unusual when we have horribly cold days’

UK weather: The latest Met Office forecast

British weather is infamously difficult to predict at the best of times – but anyone witnessing the way heavy snowfall, blazing sunshine and torrential rain have alternated in recent weeks could be forgiven for concluding its extremes are becoming more pronounced.

In March the so-called “Beast from the East” battered the country with howling blizzards, leading to the Army being called out to rescue stranded drivers, the sea freezing over off parts of the coast and the economy losing an estimated £1bn a day.

Weeks later, the country was basking in blazing sunshine and runners were sweltering along the capital’s streets in what turned out to be the hottest London Marathon on record.

The Met Office has found itself obliged to warn of successive snow, flooding and heatwaves. Record-breaking heat is forecast for the bank holiday weekend, five days after more than a month’s worth of rain deluged parts of the country in the space of 24 hours, causing a man to lose his life as he was swept out to sea in conditions described as “atrocious”.

Wondering whether or not to take a raincoat or umbrella before venturing outside is a well-established British ritual, especially in autumn and spring. However, this year it has more been a case of checking which type of severe weather warning is currently in place.

Dr Friederike Otto, deputy director of the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, told The Independent anyone tempted to ascribe the way the weather seems to be lurching between extremes to climate change would be on the right track – but possibly for the wrong reasons, as it is not the weather itself – which is actually fairly typical of the season – but expectations that have changed.

Because spring has been getting earlier and warmer over the past few years, the heavy snowfall in March came as a shock, but it is in fact more representative of traditional weather for the time of year than the warm, mild and wet starts to the season to which Britons have recently become accustomed, she explained.

“In general terms, it’s not super unusual to have these warm and cold spells in the spring and autumn seasons,” Dr Otto said. “It’s what you quite often call April weather, where you have all sorts of weather changing frequently.

“Our memory’s not that long, so it might feel much more unusual than it actually is from a normal weather point of view.

“We have seen spring starting earlier, and we might have just got used to that – so it feels more unusual when we have horribly cold days, even though it is not that unusual.”

The earlier arrival of spring across the northern hemisphere is a well-established phenomenon, and one that has been linked to the changing climate.

A citizen science project carried out by the Woodland Trust every year called Nature’s Calendar has been tracking seasonal changes since 2000, and has noted the shifts in the way birds and animals that normally mark the season’s onset behave.

UK Weather: Twister caught on video passing through Brixham, Devon

As spring creeps further forward in the calendar, creatures that rely on changes in temperature to govern their annual rhythms are left confused.

Flowers emerge in winter, frogs spawn earlier and caterpillar numbers spike too soon – leaving birds hungry and unable to feed their chicks.

Changes in weather patterns around the world are likely to take place as a result of climate change, but ultimately Dr Otto said our perception of weather is also clouded by our own short memories.

“There is a mixture of both – we do see changes but we also perceive them as much more unusual than they actually are.”

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