What’s driving the UK weather this January?

Weather headlines have been in demand in recent weeks, with a recent deep freeze in North America taking wind-chill temperatures as low as -48°C and much of Europe seeing in the new year with record-breaking mild weather for at least eight countries. 

However, despite the noteworthy weather in recent weeks and days to the east and west of the UK, a more typical winter weather pattern is most likely in January, with a number of factors driving an unsettled outlook.  

Recent cold in North America

Although the coldest conditions have now relented in North America, the temperature contrast had been helping to invigorate the jet stream, which is the driving force behind much of the UK’s weather.  

Met Office Deputy Chief Meteorologist Rebekah Sherwin said: “The temperature drop in North America before the end of 2022 was the underlying cause of our wet and windy weather in the run-up to New Year. The conditions across the Atlantic served to strengthen the jet stream and help send low pressure systems and weather fronts towards the UK, resulting in the recent unsettled conditions.  

“Those incredibly low temperatures have now passed in North America and there will not be any direct impacts from that period of weather on the UK in terms of any potential snowfall events.”

A snowy street in North America.
North America has seen some impactful snow and ice in recent weeks (Image: Shutterstock)

Mild Europe

Exceptionally high temperatures have started the year for much of Europe with Poland, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Belarus, among others, already having recorded their warmest January day on record.  

In Brest, Belarus, temperatures would normally be around 0°C at this time of year but reached a balmy 15.9°C on New Year’s Day, eclipsing its previous January record by a considerable margin. 

The driving force behind this exceptional heat was a warm air mass from the west coast of Africa, which moved across Europe, bringing unseasonably warm conditions.  

Rosie Oakes is a Climate Scientist at the Met Office. She said: “Although this specific event can’t be attributed to climate change without a formal study, the increases in average global temperatures caused by human activities such as burning fossil fuels makes it more likely that temperature records will be broken.  

“What’s noteworthy about this event is how widespread it is as well as the amount previous records have been exceeded by. Climate models projects that both the frequency and intensity of these warm weather events will increase in the future, not just in the summer but in the winter too.” 

An image of Brest, Belarus in mild conditions.
Brest, Belarus, eclipsed its January temperature record by a considerable margin (Image: Shutterstock)

Has this had an impact on the UK outlook?

The influence of the North American Christmas cold weather on the strength of the jet stream has now passed. However, other cold air outbreaks across North America and the Pacific, both recent and upcoming, are likely to affect North Atlantic jet streams in a similar fashion in the coming days. This means a continued wet and windy outlook for the UK, at least through the first part of January, with weather systems likely to impact the UK from the west.   

Another underlying factor behind the UK long-range outlook is the ongoing La Nina event, which sees episodes of cooler than average sea surface temperature in the equatorial Pacific. This can often lead to a drier and cooler first half of winter, before a transition to more unsettled conditions in January and February, with frequent wind and rain moving into the UK from the west.  

Rebekah Sherwin added: “A westerly regime is most likely for the UK in the first part of January, which means wet and windy conditions for many. Rain or showers will often be heaviest and most frequent in the west and northwest but areas further south and east are by no means immune. Temperatures are expected to be near or above average overall, with any sleet or snow most likely restricted to high ground in the north. 

“Towards the middle of the month there are some indications that the jet stream will weaken, which may be related to current and upcoming patterns of thunderstorm activity in the tropics. This may well lead to less unsettled conditions developing for a time, with an increased chance of colder, drier spells for many parts of the UK, although there aren’t currently any significant signs of long-lasting cold weather.” 

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