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Winter 2009/10

Snow blanketed most of the UK when a NASA satellite captured this image on 7 January 2010.

Winter 2009/10 was the most severe in the UK for over 30 years - the coldest since 1978/79. As snow and ice swept across the country, our forecasts and warnings helped the emergency services, our customers and the public to manage the difficult circumstances.

From mid-December, cold air from Eastern Europe started a cold spell in the UK with widespread frost, ice and snow affecting many areas with the first significant snowfall on the night of 17 December.

By 19 December, there was cold air across most of the UK with widespread snow and ice causing travel disruption in the run-up to Christmas. Low temperatures continued into the New Year as winds from the north and north east brought freezing temperatures to the UK.

The mean UK temperature over the entire winter was 1.5 °C, the lowest since 1978/79 when it was 1.2 °C.

What we did

Despite the challenges, our forecasters accurately predicted the wintry weather before it arrived. The sheer number of snowfall events over a prolonged period of severe weather created a very busy time for our weather experts. We had around 100 million hits on our website during the cold spell, with 15 million hits during the snow on 5/6 January.

Most snowfalls were well forecast but there were localised forecasts that proved difficult given the combination of rain, sleet, snow, freezing rain, and extensive icy roads. Despite tough conditions, the accuracy of our forecasts was widely acknowledged as the severe weather gave us the opportunity to showcase our forecasting capability.

To give an idea of our performance, here are some examples of the weather warnings we put out and the subsequent weather that followed:

Met Office weather warnings and the subsequent weather

10 December 2009
Early advice was given of a change from the existing mild and wet conditions to wintry weather.     
17-18 December 2009
Severe Weather Warnings issued to emergency responders two to three days ahead of heavy snow event in east/south-east England - 20 cm of snow forecast in the relevant areas.    
21 December 2009
Severe Weather Warnings were issued for heavy snow (up to 10 cm) across central southern England - correct amounts forecast. 
23 December 2009
Attention turned from snow to ice in the run up to Christmas. Severe Weather Warnings were issued for widespread ice across south/south-west England - rain fell with temperatures of -3 °C, causing widespread ice as forecast.   
25-31 December 2009
Temporary respite across southern UK for Christmas/New Year period correctly predicted whilst warnings were issued for ice and heavy snow further north.   
5-6 January 2010
Exceptional snow warning put out for southern areas, with 40 cm predicted in places - confirmed reports of 30-40 cm of level snow from Berkshire and Hampshire.     
7-9 January 2010
Emphasis shifted to extreme temperatures on the following days, with temperatures predicted to be lower than -20 °C locally in Scotland and negative double figures locally in the south - the coldest temperatures of the winter were recorded, with -22.3 °C in the Scottish Highlands and parts of Oxfordshire recording a low of -18 °C. 
10 January 2010
Initial warnings for snow across England and Wales overplayed, but forecasts and communications were modified as the situation developed - some media criticism but praise received from local planners for providing useful updates.     
12-13 January 2010
Weather warnings issued for heavy snow across many parts of Britain including the south-west and Wales, where the heaviest snow fell, although more snow than expected fell in some parts of the south-east on Wednesday morning. This fell onto frozen ground leading to extremely difficult travel conditions.

The result

During the testing period our forecasts for up to five days were consistently accurate. Here are some examples of feedback we received from our customers:

Edmund King, President of the AA: "The Met Office had predicted when the snow was coming. Therefore, there was a window of opportunity for getting gritters out on these roads."

Cabinet Office spokesperson: "The Met Office is an integral part of the UK central government response to the current severe weather and we have been very grateful for the support and advice that has been provided."There is no link between this particular event and climate change - it's just part of the natural variability of the weather. As the climate warms, we expect fewer cold winters and less snowfall in future.

The future

There is no link between this particular event and climate change - it's just part of the natural variability of the weather. As the climate warms, we expect fewer cold winters and less snowfall in future.

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