The winter of 1987 came at the very start of solar cycle 22. I remember this winter well as the ice slide we made in the playground lasted weeks not days. It was so cold I was able to throw a bucket of water down my garden drive and it froze over to make a perfect ice slide by the next morning and for weeks we slid up and down the road. The drifts were several feet high in places piling four our five feet against wire fences – even in the usual hotspot of London. Only the winters of 1991, 2009-10, 2010 and 2012 have even come close to reminding one of it and even then they were only for a few days not the long Siberian fetch of 1987. Although I doubt it will be something experienced this winter, the battleground nature of this winter does not prelude a similar depth if the bitter winds catch us again, however the possibility lies ahead as we delve further into solar minimum and the slow rise to cycle 25. It is only a matter of time before an ill wind catches I’ve groin the Atlantic and this country is prayed in white as we were in January 1881. I think many cold and snow Met Office records will be shattered in the decade ahead, although that may be more a comment on their brevity rather than what these islands have experienced before. Nothing is unprecedented only the paucity of our record keeping.
Although party of me is aware of the hardship and sadly death of the elderly, young and inform that would occur in such a repeat, it is hardly commiserate with the brutality of the weather our cousins at similar latitudes endure in winter.
The January 1987 snowfall was a very heavy lake-effect type snow event that affected the areas of East Anglia, South-East England and London between 11 and 14 January and was the heaviest snowfall to fall in that part of the United Kingdom since the winter of 1981/82. Over 50 cm (20 inches) of snow fell in parts of Kent, Essex, London and Surrey, with the North Downs just east of Maidstone recording 75 cm (30 inches). Parts of West Cornwall also had heavy falls. Several towns were cut off due to the heavy snowfall including the Isle of Sheppey which needed airlifts during the height of the storm.
This was due to a high pressure system over Siberia that moved into Scandinavia which in turn dragged a strong easterly airflow and brought very cold temperatures across Europe and the United Kingdom. A low pressure system over Italy caused the airflow to drag the very cold air from Siberia to Western Europe and picked up further moisture from the North Sea which produced the heavy snowfall. This caused serious disruption of transport in the area including the cancellation of many train services and the closure of many roads and railway lines. Motoring organisations had to deal with more than 4000 car breakdowns and 500 schools were forced to close. The extreme cold even affected the chiming hammer of Big Ben and at Southend-on-Sea the sea froze over.
The cold spell lasted from the 7th to the 20th, and was probably the most intense of the twentieth century [1962-3 eat your heart out 😉] Temperatures stayed well below freezing on many days. On the 12th, maximum temperatures were between -6°C and -8°C over much of England, with -9.1°C (16°F) the daily maximum at Warlingham.The lowest overnight temperature of -23.3°C (-9.9°F) was recorded at Caldecott, Rutland.