A nation fascinated by the weather

We are a nation fascinated by the weather. It has shaped our history and landscape and it can often affect our daily lives.

Our weather is known for being changeable but fortunately we don't suffer as many natural disasters as other parts of the world, although we still have our fair share of weather extremes.

I have been lucky to have worked as a meteorologist for twenty years now. In my early days of forecasting, it was a case of producing and communicating the best view on the weather conditions for a particular place and time.  In recent years, we have also tried to convey the impacts that the weather is likely to have. It's possible to accurately forecast winds of 65mph, days in advance, but what does that really mean for you and me? Is 65mph strong enough to cause damage or travel disruption? How hot or cold does it have to be for the temperatures to impact our health? It's been my aim, since joining the energy industry in 2006, to convey a feeling for the impacts that the weather will have on us and our customers. 

Recent winters were noteworthy for spells of heavy snowfalls and very low temperatures – this caused travel disruption as well as power outages and raised the demand for energy. This winter, the impacts of the stormy, wet weather have also been dominating the news. Repeated flooding events and gales have caused millions of pounds worth of damage to homes and other buildings, power lines, infrastructure and caused problems for travelling, wildlife and trees. 

The main driver of our weather is the jet stream - think of rivers of very strong winds flowing 9-16km above the Earth's surface. Our winter weather will be either cold and snowy, or wet and windy, depending on the shape and strength of the jet stream and where we are positioned beneath it.

The Atlantic Ocean is in a natural warm phase at the moment and this produces gales and flooding episodes. In the last few months the jet stream has been in a static position relentlessly sweeping a succession of these storms our way. Some locations in the south of England recorded over five months' worth of rainfall in the period 12th December to the end of January. When the winter is finally over, the statistics from all the weather stations around the UK & Ireland will probably reveal it to be one of the windiest, wettest and mildest on record – this means that energy demand will be lower too, although our hydro and wind farms will have generated higher amounts.

At SSE our meteorologists analyse the weather and climate and back in January we predicted a particularly wet and stormy spell for February. This information is very valuable to many departments within SSE, including Networks (power distribution), Renewable Energy (wind farms and hydro dams) and Energy Demand Forecasting (how much electricity and gas do we need each hour). 

This current unsettled weather pattern is likely to last until early or mid March and more weather related problems are highly likely. The areas at highest risk of severe weather impacts are southwest England and Wales but in the next few weeks the risk area could migrate to northwest England and western Scotland. This scenario is based on a forecast for a subtle change to the jet stream position and it's something we are monitoring every day.
Forecasting the weather and its impacts is becoming increasingly accurate and important. Government and private organisations use this intelligence to warn us before the event and plan for the manpower needed to clear-up afterwards. In the future I think we need to look more to advancing technology that can not only better predict the weather but also help us to minimise the impacts of the weather on our daily lives.

I have pulled together some interesting weather stats:

December 2013 was equal fifth wettest since records began in 1910.
January 2014 was third wettest since records began in 1910.
December 2013 + January 2014 was wettest such period since records began in 1910.

England & Wales
December 2013 + January 2014 was wettest such period since 1876/1877.
December 2013 + January 2014 was second wettest such period since records began in 1766.

December 2013 was wettest month of any since records began in 1910.
For eastern Scotland, December 2013 and January 2014 combined was the wettest two month (any-month) period since 1910.

About the author

Simon Cardy Senior Meteorologist SSE

Specialist in meteorology and climatology for the Energy Industry. Worked at the Southampton Weather Centre, Met Office 1993-2000. A Fellow Member of the Royal Meteorological Society he was educated in meteorology at the Met Office College.

Read more articles by Simon Cardy