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Nature and Weather in South East England

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 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.

Both types of weather can be produced by high pressure, which is fairly prevalent in February. If it is centred over the continent that is good news, drawing in warm air from the south. However, if it 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.

Otherwise, westerly winds off the Atlantic bring wet, changeable weather. But even then, brighter intervals between the rain fronts can seem warm and springlike, with the sun now packing a real punch compared to early January.

Cold and snow

A good example of cold weather in February came in 2018, when a large high over Scandinavia produced "the beast from the east", a week of bitter winds from Siberia from 24 February to 2 March. This produced minor snow showers on 26 February, 10 centimetres of snow in Kent, Surrey and Sussex (though only around 1cm in London) on 27 February, and 3 centimetres of snow in London overnight on 28 February. Daytime temperatures did not rise above minus 3 degrees on 28 February and 1 March, while night time temperatures reached as low as minus 11.7 degrees in Farnborough on 28 February and were widely down to minus nine in the countryside and minus six in towns and cities.

Throughout this period there was heavy snow in the north of the country and Thursday 1 March saw significant falls in the south west too, but only "snow drizzle" in London. Friday 2 March saw a further 1cm of snow in London, with daytime highs of minus 2 degrees, but then there was a rapid thaw on Saturday 3 March as the high weakened and winds turned south westerly.

There was a repeat of this in February 2021, again caused by a Scandinavian high and easterly winds from Siberia. 7-8 centimetres of snow fell in Kent, Essex and North London on Saturday 6 February, with up to 15cm in some parts of Kent, but lighter falls in the Chilterns, South London, Surrey and East Sussex. In the latter three places the snow soon melted, but in Kent and Essex it was topped up with further falls on Sunday 7 February, with flurries there and in London the following day. The snow remained on the ground for the rest of the week in Kent and Essex, despite two sunny days on the 10th and 11th, with a crusting of snow on higher ground in the Chilterns also. Maximum daytime temperatures stayed around zero for the whole week. The thaw finally came on 13 February.

Fourteen years earlier, 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.)

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.

2019 saw a repeat of 2007, with westerly winds moving into cold air bringing snow at the end of January and the start of February. There was a dusting in London on 29-30 January and around a centimetre in places on the North Downs. The 31st then saw much more substantial snow pushing in from the West Country (Cornwall had up to 12 centimetres), producing 3-9 centimetres across the south east in the early hours of Friday 1 February, and even greater depths in North Hampshire. Quite a lot of this melted during the day, but on Saturday 2 and Sunday 3 February there was there was still snow on the ground to the west and north of London, as well as in places in the High Weald.

Cold but no snow

Years when persistent high pressure brought cold weather but little or no snow include 2005, when high pressure set in on 13 February and lasted for 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 were quite heavy falls.

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 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.

In 2018, before the "beast from the east" mentioned above, the month started with high pressure over Scandinavia, producing winds ranging from easterly to northerly, and then low pressure over Iceland dominated from 8 to 21 February, often also bringing cold Arctic winds. But this was still a reasonably bright month, with eight days of full sunshine and another fourteen with some sun. Temperatures remained in the mid single digits, however, only getting into double figures on three days - one being 17 February, a welcome sunny Saturday after four that had been wet and windy.

Sunny high pressure

Examples of high pressure producing mild sunny weather include 2019, when a continental high set in from mid month, bringing air up from Africa and increasingly sunny weather. In particular, there were unbroken blue skies (apart from morning mist) from the 21st to the 27th, with maximum temperatures climbing from 15 degrees on the 21st to a record 21 degrees on the 26th, though with lows of minus one degree overnight. Only on the last day of the month did cooler (12 degrees maximum) showery weather return.

In 2023 high pressure also dominated all month, apart from three days mid month when winds were westerly. In the first half of the month the high was to the south, bringing mild air up from the Azores. There were eight sunny days in this period when temperatures edged into the low teens (reaching 16 degrees on the 15th) and it started to feel somewhat springlike, albeit that nights were cold and frosty. In the last ten days of the month there was a high to the west and the airflow was northerly, however: in this period there was a lot of gloomy grey cloud off the North Sea, with occasional sunny cracks. Only three days in the month saw any rain, and that only intermittent drizzle.

In 2008 the 8th to the 20th saw days of mainly cloudless blue skies. At first, the temperature 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 – 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.

In February 2021 maximum temperatures went from minus 1 degrees in the snow on the 12th to 12 degrees on the 15th, 14 degrees on the 20th to 23rd, and 16 degrees on the 24th. A switch to southerly winds under the influence of a huge area of low pressure to the north west was the cause of this. Despite this, the weather remained largely cloudy, with just a little bit of rain, until the last three days of the month, when high pressure set in, bringing clear blue skies: despite slightly lower temperatures of 12 degrees, this felt very springlike.

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 spring-like. 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 long hot summer.

Winds from the west

Westerly lows are also possible in February, of course, and this can also be a time for storms. For example, February 2022 had westerly winds from the 5th to the 24th, with daytime maximums regularly scraping into the low double digits. There were three major storms in close succession from 16-21 February, two affecting Scotland mostly, but the middle one - Storm Eunice - bringing very high winds across the south of England on the 18th. The month started with high pressure to the south west (and so cold north winds) and ended with high pressure to the south. The latter produced three days glorious days of full sunshine from the 25th to 27th when spring seemed to have arrived.

February 2020 was also very wet - the wettest February to date in parts of England, though less so in the south east. Apart from a brief - and sunny - high pressure interlude from the 5th to the 8th, strong westerlies dominated throughout the month. There were two intense named storms - Ciara on the 9th-10th and Dennis on the 15th-16th - and the less strong Storm Jorje on 29 February and 1 March, all unfortunately coinciding with the weekend. There was rain on 17 days, but also some sunshine on 19 days. Temperatures were mostly in the 9 to 12 degree range, though because of the strength of the wind it rarely felt warm.

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.

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 of sun, cloud and drizzle - the temperature peaked unexpectedly at 18 degrees. Nine other days had some rain.

In 2024 westerlies alternated with a static low centred to the north of the UK - sometimes over Iceland and sometimes more to the north east. The result was lots of cloud, fair amounts of rain (the ground was very saturated by the end of the month), and generally mild temperatures. From the 14th to 18th there was a particularly pleasant period, with temperatures rising to 17 degrees on the 15th, making spring seem just around the corner. Otherwise daytime maximums were mostly in the 11-13 degree range. Nights were mostly 6-11 degrees - only towards the end of the month were there three nights of sub-zero temperatures.

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, 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 2012 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).

Other 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 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.

The most trying month for mud

Good amounts of dry weather can cause mud on country paths to dry - as in 2008, 2019, 2021 and 2023: also to a lesser extent in 2009, 2013, 2016 and 2017. But if the weather is wet, 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: JanuaryMarchAprilMayJuneJulyAugustSeptemberOctoberNovemberDecember

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© Peter Conway 2006-2024 • All Rights Reserved

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