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February weather

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In medieval times, Candelmas, a festival celebrated on 2 February, was considered to be the start of spring, presumably because it was when agricultural activity such as ploughing and sowing resumed after the winter break. Nowadays we regard February as a winter month, but there is nearly always a period during the month when hats and gloves come off and spring seems to be around the corner. On the other hand the month can contain some of the coldest weather of the winter – not infrequently including snow.

The milder weather is often - but not always - due to Atlantic westerly winds, which bring wet, changeable weather. Sunny intervals between the rain fronts can seem very warm and springlike, with the sun now packing a real punch compared to the low thin sun of early January.

But high pressure can also bring warm sunshine, depending on where it is situated. Generally, continental highs are good news, for example, drawing in warm air from the south. However, if high pressure sits to the west or south west of the UK, it can bring freezing winds, grey cloud and even snow down from the north. Scandinavian highs can also bring easterly winds and snow from Russia.

Cold and snow

It was high pressure giving way to westerly winds that brought 10-12 centimetres of snow on 8 February 2007, the worst snow in the south east since 1991 (when similar amounts of snow fell on exactly the same date, ie 7-8 February).

This melted within 48 hours, but there was to be a repeat performance overnight on 1-2 February 2009 when a Scandinavian high dumped 12-15 centimetres of snow on London and 20-30 centimetres on the North Downs. Monday 2 February 2009 was the first day since 1991 when snow remained on the ground in central London, and throughout the south east trains did not run and schools and offices were closed. The snow lasted on the ground until 9 February, with further falls of up to 15 centimetres (produced by westerly winds over freezing air) in the Chilterns on 5 and 6 February. On the 10th London only escaped more heavy snow by a whisker: there was snow further north and west across a wide swathe of the country.

Each of the following four winters also saw at least one period of 10-12 centimetres of snowfall in the south east, but not always in February (see January weather for a full history). Most similar to 2009 was February 2012, which saw up to 10 centimetres of snow fall in London overnight from the 4th to the 5th, with up to 16 centimetres in rural areas. It was topped up with a further 2 centimetres on 9 February, before melting on the 12th.

In 2010, there was only a dusting of snow, but this was a relentlessly cold February, continuing the theme of the winter which was the coldest in 31 years, and saw significant snow in the south east in December and January. Temperatures rarely rose about 5 or 6 degrees the whole month and snow settled briefly in Hertfordshire, Kent and Sussex on the 10th and 11th and in the Chilterns on the 22nd (the latter also producing sleet in London).

In 2013 - another very cold February - there were 3 centimetres of snow to the north, east and south east of London on 10 February, lasting on the ground about 48 hours. A Scandinavian high then set in from the 16th to the end of the month, bringing initially a few very welcome sunny days, but from the 20th onwards relentlessly cold and cloudy weather with temperatures of just 2 degrees by day and a windchill of minus 2 degrees in bitter easterly winds. (This was to continue, with one brief interval, into early April: see March weather for details.)

While 2013 was to be exceptional in this respect, stubborn high pressure zones of this kind are in fact quite common in late February and early March. 2010 and 2011 both featured such weather, and in 2005 a particularly strong and persistent high set in from 13 February, which lasted for the next four weeks. This produced freezing northerly and then north easterly winds, and in the last week of the month regular snow flurries. Snow only settled fleetingly in the south of England, but in the north there was quite deep snow.

2006 saw a repeat of the same conditions, again with lots of snow in the north, but in the south winds were lighter than in the previous year and the skies clearer. From 24 February onward, indeed, it was mainly sunny, and it felt postively warm and springlike out of the wind. Ponds and canals remained frozen, however, and nights were bitter.

In 2015 the first twelve days of the month were dominated by high pressure, at first to the west of the UK and then centred over it. Again this produced northerly winds and again there was quite a bit of snow in the north. In the south east there was 1.5cm of snow overnight on the 3rd, which had melted by lunchtime, and then there was a dusting overnight on the 5th. Temperatures were 4-5 degrees by day and below zero at night, but sunshine on the 8th and 9th lifted them to a relatively balmy 10 degrees.

In 2016 high pressure to the west set in from 22 February, bringing northerly and then (from the 27th) easterly winds, and there was an earlier episode from the 12th to the 16th of first easterly and then northerly winds. But strangely the 4-8 degree temperatures that resulted were not so different from those that pertained for the rest of the month, when strong westerly winds were in charge. These cold winds (temperatures only rarely got as high as 10 degrees) were all the more puzzling given that in November and December the same wind pattern had produced very mild weather, prompting many early signs of spring. Though every Saturday was grey and miserable, it was a reasonably sunny month, with six days of full sunshine and ten partly sunny.

Milder weather

Examples of milder, westerly weather in February include the rest of the month in 2007, when - after the snow mentioned above - Atlantic lows dominated. These brought rain, but also some mild sunny days and temperatures of up to 13 degrees. In 2012 too winds turned westerly on the 13th after a snowy start, with temperatures rising as high as 17 degrees on the 23rd and remaining in the low teens thereafter. However, precipitation was still only 36 percent of the normal level, prompting a hosepipe ban to be introduced in mid-March (which was then swiftly rescinded in one of the wettest Aprils on record).

The last 15 days of February 2015 were also dominated by westerlies, but with plenty of sunshine between the rain bands and temperatures of up to 10 degrees. In 2003, 2005 and 2006 it was the first half of the month that saw the westerlies and in 2011 they lasted until the last few days of the month, keeping skies grey with only five widely scattered days of sunshine. In 2006, rain in the first half brought to an end a very dry winter, with as little as 60 percent of normal rainfall, which had left south east reservoirs at historic low levels.

In 2017 westerlies held sway for all but the second week (7th to the 13th), when a Scandinavian high brought grey cloud on east to north-easterly winds and temperatures of just 1-4 degrees by day. The 10th and 11th saw sleet and snow flurries which did not, however, settle. Otherwise it was a fairly normal month, with temperatures 9 to 13 degrees, plenty of cloud, but some sunshine on twelve days. One of those days saw full sunshine and three more saw mist clearing - slowly or otherwise - to full sunshine. On 20 February - a day or sun, cloud and drizzle - the temperature peaked unexpectedly at 18 degrees. Nine other days had some rain.

In 2014 westerlies dominated the entire month, with the first half of February continuing the very heavy storms of January, causing flooding on the Thames at Marlow, Bourne End, Cookham, Wraysbury and Chertsey. This was just part of a swathe of storm damage in the south of England which also saw the Somerset Levels inundated and a section of the the main Exeter to Plymouth railway line at Dawlish washed away by the sea. Throughout the month the ground in the south east was completely saturated, with standing water in many fields and water even welling up out of the ground from aquifers. The week from the 8th to the 14th in particular saw three big storms, but after that the weather calmed down to more normal unsettled weather. And in fact this was also a fairly sunny month, with substantial sun on fifteen days and two others of full sun. Temperatures were an unexceptional 7-11 degrees.

High pressure can also sometimes produce sunny weather, as in 2008, when the 8th to the 20th, saw many days of cloudless blue skies. At first, the temperature also reached 14 degrees by day, but later it sunk back to around 9-10 degrees, the usual average. Nights were cold and frosty. Even when westerlies predominated in February 2008 – that is before the 8th and after the 20th – the weather remained remarkably sunny, and there was as little as 5mm of rain the entire month.

2003 also saw benign dry high pressure from 16 February onwards bringing warm and relatively sunny weather, which more or less lasted for the whole of March too, and was the start of that year’s famous long hot summer. 2001 and 2002 saw shorter sunny highs around the third week.

In the second half of February 2009 high pressure was situated to the south west of the UK and the air it fed in off the Atlantic was relentlessly cloudy, though with temperatures up to 12 degrees. Two exceptions were the 21st and 27th, both sunny days that felt positively springlike.

The most trying month for mud

Prolonged dry weather can cause mud on country paths to dry - as in 2008 and to a lesser extent 2009, 2013, 2016 and 2017 - but usually February is the most trying month for mud, with the ground saturated with a whole winter’s rain.

More cheerfully, the evenings are rapidly lengthening. Bad weather means one often does not notice, but it is in fact getting darker 12-13 minutes later each week. Lighting up time goes from before 5pm at the start of the month to 5.40pm at the end of it, meaning one can walk in the countryside until an amazing 6pm. As the evenings lengthen, so do one's mental horizons, and one starts to venture a little further afield for walks or days out - but only a little. By the end of the month, you can almost leave work in the light.

On the downside, this is the month when the immune system seems to flag. It seems impossible that one should get through February without getting a cold, flu, or some strange stomach bug.

Other weather pages: January • MarchApril • MayJuneJulyAugust September • OctoberNovember • December

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