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Nature and Weather in South East England

January weather

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January is many people's least favourite month. This is true midwinter without the distraction of Christmas to soften it. One expects the weather to be grey and miserable, and it generally does not disappoint. But there is not infrequently at least one period of stable sunshine, as high pressure establishes itself, keeping the Atlantic frontal systems at bay.

Sunny periods

Often the sunny period happens in the second half of the month. A classic example was 2023, when westerly lows dominated up to the 15th, bringing plenty of rain but also some sunshine, and were then followed by high pressure to the south west, with more northerly airflows, which remained for the rest of the month. There was an enchanting week of sunny and frosty weather from 17-23 January, and two more sunny days on the 30th and 31st. Daytime highs were 9 to 13 degrees in the first half and 4 to 7 degrees in the second.

In 2022 westerly lows dominated for the first ten days, with tropical air on 1 January briefly pushing temperatures up to 16 degrees and making it the warmest first of January on record. High pressure then set in from the 11th, first centred directly over the UK, then from the 24th onwards to the south, the latter keeping two big storms away from the south east on 29-31 January. There was some sunshine throughout the month - six days of full sunshine and 14 of sunshine and cloud - but it was concentrated particularly between 12 and 21 January, which saw four days of full sunshine and at least some sunshine on all other days. There were only six days of rain, most of it in the first third of the month, and by its end mud had dried on many rural paths.

In 2020 high pressure sat over the UK from 17 to 21 January, producing three perfect sunny windless days, and good amounts of sunshine on other two. This period brought the first frosty nights since the start of December. The high remained for another four days after this, but then slipped away southwards, bringing cloud and some drizzle. The month was otherwise dominated by westerlies, with ten days having some rain and 15 some sunshine.

In 2016 high pressure set in from 11 to 21 January, ending an unbroken run of mild westerlies with strong winds that had dominated since the start of November. The early part of the month had already seen more normal temperatures - 7 to 10 degrees - than the 11-14 degree temperatures seen during December (the warmest December on record), and now the high brought a cold snap with temperatures 4-5 degrees by day and dipping below freezing at night. This checked some of the more exuberant signs of spring - dandelions, daffodils and primroses - that had appeared at the end of December. It was also a much sunnier month than the two preceding, with six days of full sun and six of part sunshine. Westerlies set in again from 22 January onwards.

2015 also saw a first half dominated by westerly winds, with high pressure starting to build from the 17th bringing north-westerly and then northerly winds. There were regular bursts of sunshine throughout the month, with five days of full sun and twelve at least half sunny. Temperatures sometimes nudged up to ten degrees in the first half, but were in the 5-7 degree range in the second, with hard frosts overnight.

In 2017 there were six days of unbroken sunshine from 17 to 22 January as high pressure sat over southern England: fog then set in for three days more, but on the 24th it cleared to give another fine sunny day. The 12th to the 17th were bitterly cold under northerly winds as the high edged in. As the high retreated eastwards from the 23rd onwards there were then five days of fog and cold grey cloud driven by air blowing up from the continent.

In 2024, after a very mild and wet December, high pressure set in unusually early on 5 January, bringing a northerly airflow which continued until the 19th. There were seven gloriously sunny days during this period, when daytime highs were just 2-5 degrees, nights subzero, and the ground frozen. Westerlies then returned on the 20th, but again gave way to a continental high on the 26th. This brought three more sunny days, with temperatures up to 12 degrees.

In 2019 high pressure was over the UK for the first six days and then slipped to the south west and stayed in place for the next three weeks, with a mix of sunny and cloudy days and frequent north westerly winds. Lows made some incursions for a few days mid month and towards the end of January brought snow as they moved into cold air (see below). Overall there were nine sunny days and a further nine with some sunshine. Apart from the snow, only four days saw rain.

It is possible for January to be almost entirely sunny. In 2003 after a tremendously wet late December which caused the Thames to flood to twice its width at Henley by early January, sunny weather set in from about 4 January, and lasted for the whole rest of the month, with the odd grey days intervening and a brief period of snow mentioned below. 2001, meanwhile, managed the remarkable feat of four successive sunny weekends, the only exception being a grey third Sunday.

But high pressure does not always mean sunshine. In 2013 it dominated throughout the month but brought in mainly grey clouds, while in 2010 a high resulted in sunshine only in the first four and final two days of the month. Both years also saw significant periods of snow - see below. In 2011 a high centred to the west set in from the 18th to the 30th, but the weather remained grey, as it had been in November and December.

In 2021 high pressure was more or less in charge for the first half of the month and westerly lows in the second half, but the effect was the same - enormous quantities of dismal grey cloud, with only two days of full sunshine, and two where it was sunny for a substantial part of the day. The sun was seen on twelve other days, but only fleetingly, and it rained on sixteen days. There was snow on the 16th and 24th - see below.

In 2018 there were just three days of high pressure, from 6 to 8 January, in a month otherwise dominated by westerlies: rain fell on 14 days, but there were also 14 days with at least some sunshine.

In contrast to all these years 2014 saw no high pressure at all. Intense westerly lows battered the country the whole month, bringing twice the normal rainfall to the south of England and making it the wettest January on record. There were floods in many places, including on the Thames at Marlow, Cookham and Chertsey. But there were reasonable amounts of sunshine between the lows, including five full sun days (three in a row from the 19th to the 21st, when a Scandinavian high tried to establish itself and failed) and part sunshine on seven other days. Temperatures also remained around average, which was a welcome change after several cold winters (see below).

Cold and snow

Late January and early February are not surprisingly the most likely times of the year to see snow, but in the 16 years up to February 2007 it tended to be very minor and short-lived. Indeed it was widely believed that due to climate change snowy winters in the south east were a thing of the past. For example, there was light snow on 28 January 2004 and in 2005 a high to the west of the UK brought cold north winds and snow flurries to the south east, but it did not settle. 27 January 2006 brought a dusting of snow to Kent, which soon melted in the following day's sun.

30 January 2003 was a bit more serious, with 5cm of snow bringing London to a halt in the rush hour. Some people were stranded in their cars overnight and here was widespread criticism of the region's lack of preparation for weather that would be regarded as commonplace on the continent. The snow only lasted on the ground for 36 hours before melting, however.

24 January 2007 also saw 2cm of snow fall overnight, but it had melted by 11am. But much more serious snow - 10-12 centimetres - fell on 8 February that year, and did not fully melt for 48 hours. With the exception of a few corners of Kent (see March Weather), the south east had not seen snow like this since February 1991, when almost exactly the same amount of snow fell overnight on 7-8 February.

Worse was to come in the winter of 2008-9, however, and for the next four winters (up to 2012-13). In 2009 there was a dusting of snow on 5 January and the early part of the month saw a continuation of the cold temperatures that had dominated in December 2008, with temperatures of 1 or 2 degrees by day and as low as minus 5 overnight. On 7 January they fell to minus 8 to minus 11, and a couple of days saw hoar frost (tassels of frost on twigs and leaves). But it was not until 1-2 February that there was proper snowfall, with a Scandinavian high bringing cold air from the continent and later Russia, producing 15cm of snow. This was the worse snow for 18 years, beating the February 2007 snowfall, and the start of a prolonged period of snow disruption across the country.

In the winter of 2009-10 things got worse still. December 2009 saw 10-12cm of snow mid month, and then in January 2010 there was further snow right across the country, the heaviest snowfall in 30 years. Again high pressure - initially to the west of the UK and later centred over Scandinavia - was the culprit. In the south east between 10 and 20 centimetres of snow fell overnight from 5-6 January and on 8 January a satellite picture showed the whole country covered with white. With temperatures as cold as minus five degrees overnight and only 2-3 degrees at best by day in the south east, this snow did not melt, and it was topped up with more snow in Kent over the weekend of 9-10 January, and to the south and west of London on 13 January, before a thaw set in on the 14th.

There was then a hiatus in January 2011, but only after the coldest December in 100 years, which had seen snow on the ground the whole month and sub-zero temperatures. Despite this, neither January or February saw snow that year, and apart from a brief cold snap in the first three days of the month, January temperatures remained between 5 and 8 degrees.

In 2012 it was back to snow in early February, with a Scandinavia high setting in from 28 January 2012 and producing up to 15 centimetres of snow across the south east on 4-5 February. On this occasion there was snow as far as south as the Balearic Islands and Rome. Meanwhile in 2013 after snow flurries in Kent on 12 January, the 14th saw snow all day, though with only about 1cm settling, while on the 18th there was 7cm more, with a similar amount two days later. From 17 to 21 January temperatures did not rise above zero and the snow did not melt till the 26th.

For the next four years there was only minor snow in the south east. In 2014 there was none at all, and in 2015 just dustings or sleet showers overnight in the last week of January and the first few days of February, the result of wintry showers coming down the east coast on a northerly wind. The worst of these was on 3 February, when there was over a centimetre of snow overnight. It had all melted by lunchtime, however.

On 17 January 2016 there were two to three centimetres of snow overnight but again it quickly melted in the daylight, while on 12-13 January 2017 northerly winds brought snow and sleet, which however only settled to the north of London, in the Chilterns and Kent: this produced a dusting in most places, but there was still a reasonable covering on the North Downs in Kent on 14 January.

More significant snow came in the winter of 2017-18. On 10 December 2017 there were 6-8 centimetres of snow, which remained on the ground for three days in the hills to the north of London, melting fairly rapidly elsewhere. A good covering of snow also fell during the morning of 21 January 2018, but it lasted no more than an hour on the ground before melting under rainfall.

Then just when it looked as if the south east would escape further snow, the "beast from the east" - a week of winds directly from Siberia caused by a large high pressure zone over Scandinavia - brought truly Arctic weather from 24 February to 2 March 2018. London only had falls of one to three centimetres, but Kent, Sussex and Surrey had up to ten centimetres, while in the West Country there were big depths in places. Maximum daytime temperatures did not rise above minus 3 degrees on 28 February and 1 March, and night time temperatures were widely as low as minus 9 degrees.

There was then a thaw and temperatures recovered to the low teens and it even seemed as if spring was on its way. But 17 to 18 March saw a "mini-beast" when easterly winds returned. Maximum temperatures were minus 2 degrees on the 17th, a Saturday, and zero on the 18th, though this time there was only 1cm of snow. This thawed on the 19th.

On 22 January 2019 lows coming around the top of a zone of high pressure centred to the south west of the UK brought 4-7cm of snow in the Chilterns and hills to the north of London, but only a dusting elsewhere. This stayed on the ground all the following day before melting. On the night of 29-30 January there was then a dusting in London but around a centimetre in places on the North Downs. The 31st saw much more substantial snow pushing in from the West Country (Cornwall had up to 12 centimetres) and this produced 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.

In January 2021 there seemed to be frequent snow in the north of England and Scotland, sometimes getting as far south as Oxfordshire, but the south east was spared until the 16th, when there was a small amount overnight. Mostly this melted at dawn, but some remained on the ground in the east of the region. Then on the morning of 24 January westerly lows bumping into cold air produced 7-8cm of snow in the north of London and the Chilterns, though there were lesser amounts in Central London and on the North Downs. The Chilterns snow stayed on both the ground and the branches of trees throughout a gloriously sunny 25 January, and then melted the following day.

There was then further snow on 6 February 2021 - another "beast from the east" caused by high pressure over the Arctic bringing easterly winds all the way from Siberia. On the 6th, a Saturday, 7-8cm of snow fell widely in Kent, Essex and North London, with parts of Kent having as much as 15cm. The Chilterns, South London, Surrey and East Sussex saw lighter falls, which quickly melted everywhere but the Chilterns. Further snow then fell in Kent and Essex on the 7th, with light flurries there and in London on the 8th, and snow remained on the ground in these places, despite sunshine on the 10th and 11th, until Saturday 13th.

In the winter of 2022-23, snow unusually came only in December, with up to 12cm falling to the north of London on 11 December, and lesser amounts in Kent, Sussex and Surrey. Despite plenty of sunshine this remained unmelted until the 18th. There was then no snow in January or February 2023, and only a brief half centimetre on the morning of 8 March, which quickly melted and turned to sleet as westerly weather set in. The Midlands and North of England had significant snow on the 8th and 9th, however.

In 2024 there were scattered snow flurries across Kent, Surrey and Sussex on 7 January, driven by an easterly wind. Most just produced a dusting of snow, but there was up to 1cm in a few places. With daytime temperatures just 5 degrees and nights sub-zero, some remained in the ground in shady spots for the next couple of days. On 17 January more organised snow came up the English Channel on westerly winds, but did not make landfall.

Typical temperatures

Daytime temperatures in January typically reach the upper single digits in westerly winds, with occasional forays into double digits: usually 10-11 degrees, but occasionally as much as 13 degrees. Under high pressure or northerly winds, maximums are 2 to 6 degrees. In both 2018 and 2020 temperatures were regularly in double digits (on eleven days in 2018 and twelve days in 2020): the latter year was also unusual in having just one day when the maximum was below 7 degrees (New Year's Day, when it was 6 degrees), while in 2018 there were seven such days (with maximums of 4-6 degrees).

Out of the wind the sun in January can feel surprisingly warm – by mid month, it has lost its midwinter paleness and starts to pack more of a punch. It might even be warm enough to have lunch outside a pub, or walk in shirtsleeves in sheltered spots. As the month progresses, the midday sun is noticeably higher in the sky and no longer seems to lurk at treetop level all day.

A curious fact about January is that the mornings are actually at their darkest in the first few days of the month, while dusk is already getting noticeably later. An explanation why this is so can be found towards the end of the December weather page. Sunrise is at 8.06am from the 1st to the 4th of the month, and for the next eleven days edges back only very slowly, reaching 8am on 15 January. It then advances by just over a minute a day, reaching 7.40am by the end of January.

At the other end of the day sunset is already at 4pm at the start of the month, nine minutes later than its mid-December minumum, and has advanced to what seems like a miraculously late 4.48pm by the end of it. The sudden realisation around the middle of the month that it is still daylight at 4.30pm is one of January's minor pleasures. By the end of the month there is light enough for walking in the countryside until 5.20pm.

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