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March weather


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March is the start of spring, but if one day it is warm and balmy, watch out: it may be snowing the next.

Wintry weather is possible right up to the end of the month, but it is also a rare March which does not have some shirtsleeve days with temperatures in the high teens. It makes a massive difference whether the sun is shining, or from which direction the wind is blowing.

As Charles Dickens says in chapter 15 of Great Expectations:

“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold; when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade”.

That being said, there is a tendency for temperatures to warm as the month goes on, and by its end, it is usually clear that winter is decisively over (2013 being a notable exception, as was 2016 to a much lesser extent: see below).

One moment it is spring...

When the sun does shine, you shed hat, coat and pullover in quick succession. The sky is a deep blue, the birds all seem to be singing and you feel that winter is finally gone and six months of warmer weather stretch before you. Suddenly it is warm enough to sit outside a pub to eat, or to have a picnic on a hillside. You lie down on the grass for the first time since October. By the end of the month, scarves and gloves are generally no longer needed, though you keep them handy just in case: the same goes for the central heating, which tends to get turned off, and then quickly turned back on again.

Years when March has been relatively benign, with plenty of sunny days throughout the month, include 2000 to 2003, 2009, 2011 and 2012. In 2011 this was a real tonic after four particularly grey winter months. March 2003 was so dry that the countryside was looking very parched and unhappy by the end of the month, but in the other years the relatively small amounts of rainfall were spaced well enough to keep things green. In 2012, for example, there rain from the 3rd to the 7th, and 17th to 18th in an otherwise sunny month, which was enough to keep the countryside looking springlike. After two relatively dry winters, a hosepipe ban was imposed, however.

While in the early part of the month even sunny days can still be quite cold – 6 or 7 degrees – by mid month they can get positively warm. The transition is often very rapid. In 2005, for example, temperatures went from a few degrees to 20 degrees in the third week, though wintry weather returned for the end of the month, as it did in 2004.

In 2008, the temperature had reached the mid teens within a week of a truly Arctic Easter on 21-24 March, and despite a generally cold winter, March 2009 saw temperatures up to 15 degrees quite regularly from mid month onward. In 2012 there were near cloudless skies for the whole second half of the month, with temperatures reaching up to 23 degrees. Other warm (or at least, relatively mild) ends to March came in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2007, 2010 and 2011.

By contrast in 2014 it was the first half of the month that was sunny and warm under the influence of a continental high, with temperatures rising rapidly from 9 degrees on the 1st to 17 degrees by Saturday 8 March and 20 degrees the following weekend. The second half was cooler, with westerly winds, some rain - though also reasonable sunshine - and maximum temperatures 13 degrees at best and as low as 8 degrees on the 26th. The last weekend of the month - 29 and 30 March - then returned to 20 degree sunshine.

2017 was a respectable March with nine days in the last two thirds of the month reaching 15 to 16 degrees or above (17 degrees on the 11th and 31st, 19 degrees on the 15th, 22 degrees on the 30th). Temperatures were otherwise in low double figures, with no real cold snaps. Cold east winds - the result of a high over the north of England - took the edge off temperatures from 21 to 25 March - but there was no doubt that spring was in the air from mid month onwards and 25-27 March (Sunday to Monday) were particularly glorious. In all ten days in the month were sunny and nine part sunny, but westerlies from the 1st to the 12th and 16th to the 21st also meant there were 11 days on which some rain fell (useful, as April then went on to be very dry).

...then winter returns

Much sharper swings were evident in 2007, when despite the month starting and finishing with temperatures of 17-18 degrees, there was a sharp cold period from 18-25 March which produced snow on the 22nd. The following year, Easter fell at this time (21-24 March, the earliest Easter since 1913) and saw northerly winds, snow flurries (some even settling in the Weald), hailstorms and temperatures as low as any in the winter.

In 2005 and 2006 the month started with bitter northerly and easterly winds, and they continued until 13 March in 2005 and until 23 March in 2006. Ten centimetres of snow fell on parts of Kent on 2 March 2005, and on 4 March snow settled in north London. In 2006, the cold snap was rather sunnier in the south east, with no snow, though there was plenty further north. Nevertheless the cold winds up to 23 March that year were so fierce that spring was completely put on hold, with none of the usual blossoms and flowers coming out.

2013 was to prove even worse - the coldest March since 1962, in fact, though with an even colder finish. The month started reasonably enough, with temperatures of 7 to 8 degrees, and on the 3rd to the 5th there was sunshine - very welcome after a grey and cold January and February. On the 5th for one brief day temperatures soared to 17 degrees in London and 14 degrees more widely. But on 10 March strong easterly winds set in, caused by a massive high over Greenland, and temperatures plummeted to 2 degrees by day, and -2 or -3 by night, with windchill factors making it feel even colder. On the 11th and 12th there was as much as 10cm of snow in Kent and Sussex, stranding motorists in their cars, and on the 13th there were snow flurries in London.

The whole rest of the month was then bitterly cold, with unrelenting easterly winds, endless grey skies and temperatures quite often only 1 or 2 degrees at best. Spring was put completely on hold, and by the end of the month the countryside still looked no different from how it had looked in February. All birdsong had ceased. On 22-23 March there was major snowfall in the Midlands and North of England, causing drifts over two metres deep in places, and in London and the south east 2-4cm fell on the 23rd, remaining on the ground for several days. Even after the 27th, when there was finally some sun, the easterly wind never relented, and temperatures reached no higher than 5 degrees by day and below zero at night. As late as 4 April temperatures were just 3 degrees by day.

Contrast this with 2010, when after the coldest winter in 30 years and a frosty but sunny start to March, the weather turned wet and windy in the second half, with temperatures in the mid teens. In both the famous cold winters of 1963 and 1947 March also saw a thaw, with a rapid increase in temperatures before its end.

A rather nondescript March came in 2015. Highs dominated most of the month, but temperatures were never particularly warm nor bitterly cold, fluctuating between 10 and 14 degrees for the most part. It was mainly sunny in the first half (apart from two grey drizzly days from the 8th to 9th) but there was always a cool north westerly or north easterly breeze. In the second half similar winds often brought grey cloud in off the North Sea at a time when the west of the country was enjoying sunshine (eg on 20 March, when cloud obscured an 85% eclipse of the sun).

March 2015 then ended with three days of windy, wet westerly winds, which can also be a feature at this time of year. 2008 saw lows of this kind from 6 to 15 March, with particularly strong winds around 10-11 March. It was a particularly dismal month, in fact, with only five or six really good sunny days, most of them at the start of the month. After its cold first three weeks, 2006 also ended with westerly winds and heavy rain – though in this case the precipitation was welcome after a dry winter. In 2016 the last three days of Easter (26 to 28 March) were dominated by strong westerlies, culminating in "Storm Katie" in the early hours of Easter Monday, which left a sunny but blustery and cold day in its wake.

In general March 2016 was rather cool, delaying the onset of spring despite a very early start to it due to an exceptionally mild December and early January. There were 21 days in the month when the temperature got no higher than the upper single digits, and northerly or easterly winds dominated until the 18th. There was significant snow in the Midlands and North on 1 March, but it did not reach the south east. However the month also had ten sunny days, with temperatures reaching a respectable if unspectacular 12-13 degrees on five of them and 15 degrees on 25 March (Good Friday).

Mud dries, long evenings start

Even at the start of the month it is light till after 6pm, meaning day length has more or less ceased to be an issue. The clocks going forward on the last weekend of the month still rather take one by surprise, however: can it really now be light until almost 8pm? But yes, it can, and this is the start of five and a half wonderful months when this will be true.

It starts to be dry enough to sit on the ground, due to the increased temperature of the sun, which increases evaporation, and growing plants, which suck moisture out the ground. In January, even if the weather is dry the ground stays wet. By the end of March if the weather is dry for a few days one can sit on the grass in the park, though heavy rain still has the power to turn paths muddy and the turf soggy well into April, and gloopy spots remain in woods or shady hollows. Sometimes this can reverse drying that has already happened: in 2008 the ground started the month dry after a very sunny February but after stormy weather and a cold snap the month ended with mud of a midwinter intensity.

Hayfever sufferers get reminded of their ailment, if they were not already reminded of it in February. Tree pollen – and in particular birch pollen which can start at the end of the month – is the cause of the suffering.

The sea is at its coldest in March - typically only six degrees off the south coast of England.

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