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Sryan Bruen

January 1987: Beastiest of Beasterlies

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This is going to be about the beast from the east event that occurred in January 1987 for Ireland and the UK; it also plagued much of Europe with some extraordinary temperatures.

Some background information on the Winter itself to start. Winter 1986-87 overall was fairly unremarkable beginning with a very unsettled end to 1986. For England and Wales, they had their 15th wettest December on record and it was the 8th wettest on record for the UK (up to 2017) as a whole. It was a very zonal dominated month with low pressure to the north and high pressure to the south over the Azores. It was somewhat strange seeing a month as zonal as December 1986 in the middle of solar minimum. However, there was blocking over the Arctic as can be seen from the reanalysis below which could be indicated as a teaser of what was to come in January 1987. This was coming off the back of a very cold year that 1986 was. Valentia Observatory (Cahirciveen at the time) and Roche's Point both had their coldest year in their records and hasn't been beaten since. Winter 1986-87 is remembered for the one January 1987 event showing you how significant it was because it was quite an unremarkable and forgettable Winter overall.

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The zonal flow continued into the early days of January but the Polar Jet is on a more southerly track so the air is not particularly mild and in fact, rather chilly. Temperatures between 4-7°C generally, some milder than others.

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High pressure attempted to ascend from the south on the 3rd and into the 4th before low pressure pushed into the north again. Temperatures getting up to low double figures in brief warm air masses ahead of the front. This low went to the east of the UK and into continental Europe forcing high pressure to build in the middle of the Atlantic ridging into Ireland.

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By the 8th, high pressure is over Ireland trying to block off the Atlantic, fails doing so briefly as outbreaks of rain reach the country. A deep severe cold pool was building to the east of Europe with warm air advection taking place to the west. What this meant is that warm air from the south is being flown into the Arctic which in turn sends cold air out into the mid-latitudes. It just happens that this time it was Europe that got the cold air. Ireland is fairly chilly with some outbreaks of rain and the odd sunny spell.

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The weak low that brought outbreaks of rain on the 8th/9th started to clear southwards on the 10th and the beast from the east developed itself. The main period for the event is the 11th to the 14th but the 10th, 15th and 16th were pretty cold in parts also.

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Monday 12th & Tuesday 13th January 1987 were both the coldest days of the entire century in terms of mean temperatures, colder than any day of 1947, 1963, 1979 and 1982. They weren't remarkable in terms of air minimum temperatures, especially in Ireland but their air maximum temperatures were incredibly low with some records being smashed. The table below I made is of some random stations picked around the Emerald Isle and their air maximum temperatures for each of the days shown above with charts of the beast from the east. We would not see air maximums this low again until December 2010, even February 1991 wasn't as cold to this extreme level. For the CET, you would have to go back to the likes of 1740 to see anything close to the severity of this January 1987 extreme cold. The whole of the UK (in terms of the official temperature records) nearly recorded an ice day (failing to reach an air maximum of 0.0°C or above throughout the day) on the 12th January 1987. The one station that went above freezing was at the Butt of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides to the northwest of Scotland. This is the closest you will find to a day in the UK where every place is recording an ice day, there is no other competition for such in the official records. Southend in Essex, where 38 cm of snow was lying, did not exceed -9°C between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m of the 12th January 1987.

Some UK data from January 1987 courtesy of Kevin Bradshaw:

The intense cold and heavy snowfalls hit the SE the hardest. Transport was gridlocked and the cold even affected Big Ben's chiming hammer.

 

Data for January 1987

CET: 0.8

CET max mean: 3.2

CET min mean: -1.5

Coldest CET maximum day: -5.7 12th January

Coldest CET minimum day: -9.7 12th January

8th-19th January CET: -3.0

 

Heathrow

Mean Max: 3.6

Mean Min: -1.0

Air frosts: 18

Days with falling sleet/snow: 9

Days with lying snow: 6

 

Lowestoft

Mean Max: 2.7

Mean Min: -0.8

Air frosts: 18

Days with falling sleet/snow: 7

Days with lying snow: 11

 

Cardiff

Mean Max: 3.6

Mean Min: -0.8

Air frosts: 18

Days with falling sleet/snow: 6

Days with lying snow: 4

 

Elmdon

Mean Max: 3.0

Mean Min: -2.6

Air frosts: 20

Days with falling sleet/snow: 10

Days with lying snow: 12

 

Manchester

Mean Max: 3.7

Mean Min: -1.0

Air frosts: 20

Days with falling sleet/snow: 10

Days with lying snow: 7

 

Abbotsinch

Mean Max: 3.9

Mean Min: -2.2

Air frosts: 19

Days with falling sleet/snow: 11

Days with lying snow: 9

 

Belfast

Mean Max: 5.4

Mean Min: -0.8

Air frosts: 13

Days with falling sleet/snow: 8

Days with lying snow: 5

 

Plymouth

Mean Max: 5.3

Mean Min: 0.9

Air frosts: 20

Days with falling sleet/snow: 3

Days with lying snow: 2

 

Coldest CET days on record

Jan 12 1987 -5.7

Jan 26 1945 -4.5

Feb 06 1895 -4.5

Jan 14 1881 -4.4

Jan 05 1894 -4.2

Dec 12 1908 -4.0

Jan 25 1881 -4.0

Feb 15 1929 -3.9

Feb 01 1956 -3.8

Jan 29 1947 -3.8

 

The UK mean temperature was 0.7°C. The Central England mean temperature (CET) was 0.8°C.

It wasn't all beastly as the easterly brought with it a lot of cloud. In fact, Rosslare, Co. Wexford in Ireland had less than 1 hour of sunshine from the 10th to the 28th January. 'Twas a very dry month too so much of the time besides the beasterly, not a lot happened in Ireland.

Here is what Met Éireann says about the month:

Quote

On Sunday 11th January, a cold southeasterly airflow covered the country. During the 12th, snow showers were confined mainly to the east and south, and accumulations were generally small. Easterly winds were moderate to fresh. Snow showers on 13th penetrated further westward over Ireland and snowfalls seriously affected Cork City and its environs. Places in the east and midlands reported appreciable depths of snow on Wednesday 14th. Moderate southeasterly winds accompanied snowfalls and drifting occurred. Road travel was impeded, and some main roads were made impassable. Temperatures rose a little above zero on Thursday and a slow thaw set in. Unlike the 1982 situation, roads which were cleared did not freeze over after Thursday and travelling conditions on main roads improved quickly. Conditions had much improved by Saturday and on Sunday 18th only traces of snow-lying remained.

12cm of snow was reported at Roche's Point. This is the greatest depth of snow recorded at this location since systematic measurements of snow depths began in 1961. At Roche's Point also, air minimum temperatures fell to -7.2°C on the night of the 12th/13th which is the lowest air temperature recorded at Roche's Point since records began in 1867.

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January 1987 snowfall depth measurements at a handful of stations over Ireland.

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Minimum temperatures for January 1987 around Ireland. Some of the stations' minimum temperatures you'll notice are recorded on the 31 January 1987 instead of during the beast from the east event.

Ardee; -8.9°C on the 31st

Ardfert; -8.3°C on the 14th

Ballinamore; -8.4°C on the 13th

Ballinrobe; -8.1°C on the 31st

Belmullet; -5.7°C on the 13th

Birr; -8.9°C on the 14th

Carlow; -7.7°C on the 14th

Cahirciveen; -5.9°C on the 13th

Casement Aerodrome; -7.6°C on the 31st

Claremorris; -7.8°C on the 13th

Clones; -8.0°C on the 13th

Clonroche; -6.7°C on the 13th

Cork Airport; -8.0°C on the 13th

Dublin Airport; -5.2°C on the 13th

Dungarvan; -6.2°C on the 13th

Dunsany; -8.5°C on the 31st

Fermoy (Coolnakilla); -8.3°C on 13th

Galway; -7.7°C on the 13th

Glenamoy; -6.8°C on the 13th

Glencolumbkille; -7.0°C on the 14th

Glenties; -8.2°C on the 14th

John F. Kennedy Park; -6.9°C on the 13th

Johnstown Castle; -6.1°C on the 13th

Kilkenny; -7.0°C on the 14th

Killarney; -7.8°C on the 13th

Kinsealy; -6.6°C on the 31st

Knockavilla; -6.8°C on the 13th

Lullymore; -7.5°C on the 31st

Malin Head; -3.9°C on the 12th

Mooncoin; -9.2°C on the 13th

Fermoy (Moore Park); -6.9°C on the 13th

Mullingar; -7.4°C on the 13th

Roche's Point; -7.2°C on the 13th

Rosslare; -4.4°C on the 12th/13th

Shannon Airport; -7.2°C on the 13th

 

31 January was a settled and cold day with barely any wind which made for the severe frosts in places.

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Reanalysis for January 1987 showing the severe blocking over Iceland.

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Reanalysis for the Beast from the East event (January 11th-14th 1987).

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Here's a little article by Andy Woodcock on January 1987.

Quote

Record Cold Spell of 1987: How It All Started

It is well accepted that the most severe spell of weather in southern England since the 'Little Ice Age' occurred in the unlikely year of 1987 in an otherwise 'average' winter.

So what brought about such a severe spell and why did it end as quickly as it started.

The story begins in the first few days of January 1987, looking at the surface chart a cold spell seemed miles away as a strong High of 1032mb sat over Spain with the U.K. and Western Europe in a strong Westerly flow, temperatures through most of Europe were above normal, however in Scandinavia and Northwest Russia it was intensely cold.

The first change occurred quickly on the 2nd as the Iberian High shifted Westwards and low pressure transferred into the North Sea, a brief Northerly swept south across the U.K. but it was hardly cold.

By Sunday 4th High pressure was back over France with the U.K. in another mild flow, however by now the models thought something was up and on the Countryfile forecast on the 4th the forecast was for a short but very cold Northeasterly outbreak mid week as low pressure crossed Holland. The models however predicted that the Arctic outbreak would be short and that milder westerly winds would take over again by the weekend.

The short cold spell was in fact a non-event as rising pressure over Ireland killed off the Arctic Airflow and by the 7th High pressure was centered over the Irish Sea and the weather cool and quiet.

By the 7th the models still couldn’t decide which way things were going to go and the Met. Office remained silent about prospects for the weekend.

Things then moved very quickly, a deepening low moved south across Norway on the 8th and into Germany by the 9th and behind this low there was a massive rise in pressure over Scandinavia. At the same time a large pool of intensely cold air had swept out of Western Russia and was crossing Poland and East Germany, at last the models could see what was going to happen and early on the 9th the message went out: 'Very Cold later in the weekend'.

Meanwhile pressure continued to rise over Scandy reaching 1040mb over Finland by the 10th. Sub freezing air reached Eastern England on the afternoon of the 10th and this very cold air reached all areas by dawn on the 11th.

The Countryfile Forecast on the 11th was a 'classic' John Kettley saying "The only bright thing on this forecast is my tie!" He rightly predicted freezing temperatures and blizzards all week although even now the depth of the cold was being under estimated.

During the day temperatures kept on falling as snow showers became more intense, Monday 12th was probably one of the most remarkable days of the 20th Century as temperatures stayed below -5°C throughout England and below -8°C in several places in the home Counties.

The Weather Log for Jan. 1987 describes the 12th-14th as the coldest spell of weather in southern England since January 1740.

Over the next few days the U.K. was swept by blizzards and freezing temperatures as an upper cold pool crossed England.

The models showed no sign of a break in the weather and on the Countryfile Forecast on January 18th the forecast was for a very cold but drier week, however within 24 hours this forecast went wrong.

During the 19th a warm front crossed the U.K. cutting off the continental feed and high pressure then formed in the warm sector.

By the 20th temperatures of 4-6°C were recorded over most parts and a steady thaw began. The next 10 days were dull and sunless the severe spell becoming a distant memory.

The interesting thing about the cold spell is the poor performance of the forecast models even up to +72 hours, O.K. computers are better now but I still think they would struggle with a similar chain of events.

That's not all though, the atmosphere was to continue to act unusual courtesy of a SSW that occurred shortly after the main beast from the east event in January 1987. This would be followed by one of the snowiest Marches of the 20th century.

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