December 2015 was the wettest calendar month for the UK in a series of monthly weather records stretching back to 1910. But why does the Met Office state 1910 when listing records, especially when some records existed well before that time?
Part of the answer is that the Met Office has a responsibility to collate weather records for the entire UK, the UK countries and historic counties. The digital archive used to generate our UK analyses includes station observations back to 1853, but only since 1910 has there been a sufficiently dense network of stations to allow an analysis of the whole UK.
One station, the Oxford Radcliffe Observatory, which is managed by Oxford University School of Geography and the Environment – holds rainfall records back to 1767. This allows a greater understanding of the rainfall in Oxfordshire, but doesn’t allow greater comparison with England or the UK: vital when you are trying to provide a complete picture.
The England and Wales Precipitation (EWP) series stretches back to 1766. In recent times the EWP – a highly significant climate series – is based on records from around 100 stations, but the further you go back the fewer recording stations there were. This provides a good analysis of records for England and Wales, but doesn’t capture the remainder of the UK: Scotland and Northern Ireland. Additionally, it doesn’t take account of the thousands of recording stations which provide more detailed picture for the UK in more modern times.
Dr Mark McCarthy is the head of the Met Office’s National Climate Information Centre. Commenting on the results he said: “Although our UK dataset currently only stretches back to 1910 we are adding to it by digitising more of our extensive paper archives in order to extend these records further back in time. When we have done that it is possible that months like October 1903 may rival or even surpass some of the UK records set in December 2015.
“However for December 2015 we have a good picture of the rainfall patterns across the UK such as the record breaking rainfall in: Cumbria, North Wales; eastern Dumfries and Galloway; and parts of the Cairngorms.”
“In fact, as our very high-resolution rainfall map in December 2015 shows, parts of England were close to average and some places actually recorded lower than average precipitation. Just like a digital photograph, greater resolution allows you to observe finer detail. Therefore picking any one place or region may not be representative of the UK as a whole.”
Met Office national records are created using a method to interpolate observations from our network of stations onto a 5km by 5km grid covering the UK. The gridding method is a more sophisticated approach for analysing rainfall than simply taking an average of station data. However, because it also requires a denser network of stations it is not as long running a series as the EWP and some long running observing sites. The different datasets are therefore complementary and we use both to monitor our changing climate.
So, the UK’s national climate series – the records you will see quoted when the Met Office routinely releases statistics – is a comprehensive rainfall analysis covering the whole of the UK back to 1910 using all available observations. Other series including the EWP are also a vital part of our national climate monitoring and provide us with an even longer historical context for some parts of the UK.
Professor Adam Scaife is a climate scientist with the Met Office’s Hadley Centre. He said: “It’s clear that December 2015 was a very significant month for rainfall and was the highest since our records began in 1910. We have been asked about the link between climate change and the rainfall in December 2015.
“With or without climate change there have always been exceptional spells of weather and there always will be. But climate change can add to the natural variations in our climate and it is this that increases the chance of record breaking weather and unprecedented extremes. It is therefore vital that we monitor our weather and climate in as much detail as possible to assess and predict future weather extremes.”