Last week on 1 July the UK saw its warmest July daily max temperature on record (records date back as far as 1853), with 36.7 °C at Heathrow. This has led to considerable interest in the wider context of the record temperatures. Here, Mark McCarthy, Manager of the Met Office National Climate Information Centre discusses records and how we record them.
Where were record temperatures observed on 1 July 2015?
Although Heathrow measured the highest temperature recorded by the Met Office observing network on a July day, record temperatures were reported across a wide stretch of the country, including from some of the Met Office’s very long running climate stations.
Temperatures exceeded 35 °C at a handful of locations in London and the south east, but also reached the low 30s across the Midlands, East Anglia and parts of north-west and north-east England. It is in these areas that July temperature records were broken.
The table below lists those stations with more than 50 years of observations for which 1 July 2015 was a record. These data show that record temperatures for July were not confined to London or other major urban centres. The records were, in fact, part of a larger scale pattern of high temperatures extending through Spain, Portugal and France.
|SITE||DATE OF PREV JULY RECORD||PREV RECORD JULY MAX (°C)||1 JULY 2015 MAX (°C)||YEARS OF DATA|
|St James’s Park||5/7/1959||34.4||34.7||52|
How does this compare to past heatwaves?
Temperatures over 36 °C reported at any station in the UK observing network are very rare, with only a handful of notable heatwaves seeing such extremes. The heatwaves of August 1990, August 2003, and July 2006 each saw a number of stations exceed 36 °C, whereas on 1 July 2015 Heathrow was the only station.
The Met Office maintains a list of climate extremes for the UK. It is standard practice to report the highest and lowest temperature every month as part of our routine monitoring of UK weather and climate. It is therefore always noteworthy when one of these records is broken.
While there is no doubt that some previous heatwaves have seen more extreme or more widespread high temperatures overall – particularly in the climatologically warmer period from late July into early August – 1 July 2015 has the honour of holding the highest recorded temperature for a July day with 36.7 °C at Heathrow.
How do you ensure the data are reliable?
To ensure consistency, Met Office weather records are only given for stations with standard instruments and exposure. This means that our records would not represent the extremes that may have occurred in places where we do not have standard instruments. This may have been the case on 1 July 2015, where the availability of additional data from amateur observers contributing to Met Office WOW show peak temperatures in the range 35 to 37 °C to the west London.
It is reasonable to ask whether Heathrow, as a major international airport, can provide a reliable climatological record. Are the observations biased by the presence of runways and air traffic?
The instrumentation and station enclosure are managed so that they meet the standards required by the Met Office and set out by the World Meteorological Organization. The site has been operating for 66 years and provides an excellent long observational series for west London.
The first thing we can do is compare the climatological temperatures with a nearby station at Kew Gardens. The average daytime maximum temperatures for the two sites are very close:
|Heathrow||21.04 °C||23.54 °C||23.15 °C|
|Kew||21.02 °C||23.48 °C||23.15 °C|
On 1 July the maximum temperature recorded at Heathrow (36.7 °C) was higher than Kew (35.7 °C). Modern instrumentation means we can look at the temperatures minute-by-minute at the two sites, as shown below. The two locations recorded very similar temperatures through most of the afternoon and the average temperature at the two sites between 12:00 and 18:00 GMT agree to within 0.02 °C. However, there was a peak in temperature at Heathrow between 14:00 and 14:30 GMT that was not seen at Kew Gardens. What could cause such a peak?
There were scattered clouds in the area that afternoon. Both Heathrow and Kew Gardens have instruments measuring solar radiation, shown in the graph below. Both sites recorded a general dip in solar radiation due to clouds from approximately 13:30 to 15:00 GMT which corresponds to a slight cooling at both sites. Heathrow saw a short gap in the clouds shortly after 14:00 GMT which resulted in a similarly short lived peak in temperature, while Kew Gardens remained cloudy. In turn Kew Gardens then saw a brief spell being sunnier than Heathrow just before 15:00 GMT and became warmer than Heathrow for about an hour.