Heatwave Summers: There’s more than 1976

This post was originally written on 18 July 2018. Subsequently, the summer of 2018 nominally became the UK’s hottest by average mean temperature (although the difference between 2018, 2006, 2003 and 1976 is minimal) and third hottest by average maxima.

2018 has been a remarkable summer. On the back of the warmest May on record (since 1910) for the UK, we saw the third warmest June (featuring the second warmest daytime maxima) which was also the fifth sunniest and ninth driest (third driest for England). The first half of this summer has been the driest on record for the UK. Temperatures have remained consistently very warm, with localised regions seeing prolonged and sometimes record-breaking dry spells. Had we gone into this period with less antecedent rainfall, we might have more concerns than we already do about water supplies (with only United Utilities so far issuing a hosepipe ban). 2018 has yet to see a very hot spell, though that may change in the coming few weeks – climatologically the warmest time of the year (for example, at the time of writing, the UK’s current record temperature of 38.5°C was set on 10 August 2003).

But will this heatwave be remembered?

I pose this question because the manner in which this summer has been reported would seem to suggest we’ve only ever had one heatwave in the UK: 1976. At a push, maybe 1995 too. But the truth is, of course, far from that.

Even just last year featured a memorable heatwave. June 2017 saw five consecutive days of temperatures exceeding 30°C somewhere in the UK, with a peak of 34.5°C on 21 June marking the highest temperature recorded in June since… yes, you guessed it,1976.

Until this year, the driest first half of a summer was 2013, which also featured a 19-day streak of temperatures exceeding 28°C somewhere in the country during July (which was the third warmest and third sunniest). Yet, this heatwave seems poorly remembered among the general public — something I find astonishing because of the contrast after the 2007-2012 spell of very wet and relatively cool summers.

Other remarkable summers have occurred in recent times. July 2006 is the warmest month on record for the UK, during which a new record for July maximum temperature was set (later beaten in 2015). 2003 saw a severe heatwave across Europe which resulted in setting the UK surpassing 100°F for the first time on record, during a month which went on to become the UK’s fifth warmest August. In 1997, August was the second warmest on record for the UK, only slightly behind 1995. And before 2006, July 1983 was the warmest month on record for the UK.

In terms of mean temperatures for the UK across the three summer months, 1976 (15.70°C) is essentially tied with 2003 (15.74°C) and 2006 (15.75°C). However, 1976 and 1995 are the top two in terms of maximum temperatures, followed by 2006 and 2003. Rainfall wise, the driest summers are 1995 and 1976, followed by 1983.

The prolonged string of hot temperatures, and the truly “flaming” June of 1976, were incredible. The water shortages caused by the preceding hot summer of 1975 (even more forgotten, with a hotter August than 1976!) and dry 1975-76 winter, were historic. But other historic heatwaves have happened since.

So, will people look back and remember the dry and hot summer of 2018? Only time will tell, but the evidence of “forgotten” recent heatwaves seems to suggest it won’t get the recognition it deserves.

Perhaps it’s a generational thing influenced by the present-day age of those who remember 1976.

Perhaps people don’t spend as much time outside anymore – as someone who is outside a lot (aside from being a meteorologist) I have always noticed and relished the warmer spells even in a poor summer.

Perhaps, because the summers preceding 1976 were so much colder (the 1960s lacked anything that could be called a ‘heatwave’ summer), we’ve just become accustomed to warmer summers and there’s less of a ‘wow’ factor when a heatwave does come along.

Despite all of that, I’d like to think people will remember this summer due to England’s performance in the World Cup and how well it timed with the peak (so far) of the heatwave. If only we’d won it, then it would really be a magnificent combination!

A final thought: has anyone ever said “Summer weather was so much worse when I was a child!”.

2 thoughts on “Heatwave Summers: There’s more than 1976

  1. What a great look back through the archives Simon. Thank you. Brought back some memories from some of those summers too! And thanks also for your regular and informative tweets.

    Liked by 1 person

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