If you’re old enough to remember 1947, then you’ll almost certainly have the winter as one of your most vivid memories of the year. For meteorologists and climatologists, the winter of 1947 was a standout year for the UK, but the statistics don’t tell the full story of the severity of the winter and the significant impact that it had on communities across the UK.
Seventy years ago, from late January until mid March, easterly winds drove a succession of snowstorms across the UK resulting in what was believed to have been the snowiest winter since the mid-nineteenth century. Six weeks of snow, which began on January 23, led to thousands of people being cut off by snowdrifts. As the UK was recovering from the effects of the Second World War, the armed forces were called upon to clear roads and railways of snowdrifts that were up to seven metres deep in places.
According to the record, snow fell every day somewhere in the UK for a run of 55 days. Because the temperature on most days barely exceeded freezing, much of the snow settled.
Mike Kendon, who works for the Met Office’s National Climate Information Centre, has co-authored several papers on the severity of British winters. He said: “It was clear that no-one expected the winter of 1947 to be severe. At the start of January the conditions were generally very mild and temperatures of up to 14 °C were recorded in places. However, all of this was to change as an area of high pressure set up a weather pattern which dominated the UK for the rest of the winter.”
February 1947 was the coldest February on record in many places. At Kew Observatory the temperature didn’t rise above 4.4 °C, and in Bedfordshire on the 25 February, the temperature dropped to -21 °C.
Mike Kendon added: “Meteorologically, spring begins on 1 March. But in the early part of March 1947, people’s minds weren’t on spring. Gales and heavy snowstorms brought blizzard conditions especially on March 4 and 5 when heavy snow fell over most of England and Wales. This led to drifts several metres deep in parts of the Pennines and the Chilterns.
“Many people regard 1963 as a record winter, and in the record going back to 1910, this winter does stand out. But 1947 broke after the middle of meteorological winter, which in one way dilutes the severity of the second half of winter.”
At the end of the freeze, rising temperatures brought a rapid thaw of the deep snow which led to meltwaters pouring into rivers, causing many to burst their banks.
Winter’s impacts on wildlife
Of course it wasn’t just people who were affected, as wildlife was also dealt a cruel blow. Naturalist and broadcaster Chris Packham, who is currently on our screens as one of the presenters of BBC Winterwatch, said: “Winter is always a challenging season for wildlife, but some winters stand out as being especially harsh, with 1947 being a particularly brutal example. Reports following the winter showed that many species suffered to an extent and some endured very harsh times indeed. Notably, small-bodied birds, such as wrens, goldcrests, pied wagtails and long-tailed tits, fared extremely badly. In fact the numbers of goldcrest – Britain’s smallest bird – were hit in almost all locations. Fortunately, the populations of these birds recovered and the long-tailed tit – thanks to a combination of a run of relatively milder winters and garden-birdfeeding – is enjoying good times as it is now one of our most familiar garden birds.”
Further information on severe winters is available here.