‘Beast from the East’ meets Storm Emma

Combination of photos shows the green garden and the snow covered garden the next day.

YOU will have gathered from a recent article in this column (thesundaypost – Jan 28) that the UK experienced an unusually mild winter with late spring flowers blooming in hedgerows in December and early January. A Sabahan friend emailed me only last week to enquire as to when would be the best time to visit me with his family so that they can all experience real snow. I explained that living in peninsular Southwest England, we very rarely receive a good fall of snow for it melts away as quickly as it falls, unlike the Scottish Highlands so far north.

As I write this, it is the first official day of spring, yet a raging blizzard is swirling snow around my house. The UK Meteorological Office has declared a ‘red alert’ for my specific area, with snow falling continuously for the next 36 hours. The nearest national park to me, Exmoor, only 30km away, is expected to receive 50cm of snowfall with severe drifting. Well, the ‘winter wonderland’ has hit the first day of spring and, with untreated country roads around me, I am marooned for a few days until the thaw arrives. Trees will collapse under the weight of snow and powerlines will also fall, for the wind-speeds are 70km per hour and the outside wind chill temperature at minus 13 degrees Celsius.

Wild weather elsewhere

A month ago, the eastern seaboard of the USA was plastered in deep snow while a few days ago New York hit a record of the highest February temperature at 25 degrees Celsius. On the same day, San Francisco in California, on the western seaboard, recorded 2 degrees Celsius. Further north, in Canadian British Columbia, bitingly low temperatures existed. Alaska, meanwhile, was very much warmer. Mid-February saw a third of the ice cover on the Bering Sea melt, all within a week.

According to the Climate Prediction Centre of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), seasonal rainfall figures have well exceeded the norm in both Sarawak and Sabah, but are below average in Pontianak, as in the eastern states of Peninsular Malaysia. With high daily evaporation dates related to average daily temperatures varying from 25 degrees Celsius to 35 degrees Celsius in rural areas, and up to 40 degrees Celsius in urban areas, clearly the size of a city, such as Kuching or Kota Kinabalu, will have an impact evaporation rates and rainfall figures, thus causing prolonged and more intense thunderstorms and rainfall.

Meteorologists believe that the rapidly diminishing sea-ice cover in the Arctic Ocean is affecting weather patterns across Asia, Europe and North America from the North Pole down to the Equator.

Combination of photos shows the green garden and the snow covered garden the next day.

Back to Europe

Italy’s capital, Rome, has received unusually high snowfalls and temperatures have plummeted in Eastern Europe in the last few weeks. Only two weeks ago the UK Met Office on its computer-checked models forecast a prolonged outbreak of icily cold winds, and heavy and prolonged snowfall. We may well ask ourselves, “Why have these strange weather patterns occurred?”

Last month saw an abnormal warming of the air in the stratosphere (at between 15km and 50km above our heads) with an increase in temperature over the North Pole. This abnormality has caused a massive upheaval in weather conditions as the heat has been fed downwards into our troposphere at 9km to 15km above us, and has thus affected the meandering jet stream patterns in both their amplitudes and latitudinal movements. These jet streams are the ‘drivers’ of cyclones around the world.

Europe has been gripped in icily cold winds coming from a high pressure air-mass sited over Scandinavia and extending to Siberia, driving north-easterly and easterly winds westwards towards to the Atlantic Ocean. Such an air-mass is known as a blocking anticyclone of dense colder air which bounces any Atlantic warmer cyclonic air-masses off it.

Old February sayings

These adages somehow ring true, even in the 21st century with our age of computerised meteorological modelling with instant data downloaded from such sources as oceanic buoys and satellite images. Feb 24 is celebrated in the Christian calendar as St Mathias’ Day when it is said, “On this day if it freezes, it will freeze for another month!”

Talking to an elderly local farmer recently, he said that he had told his sons, during this very mild January, that, “A February Spring is not worth a pin!” His was a full warning not be lulled into a false sense of security no matter how mild the winter months have been. Animals and birds are excellent predictors of inclement weather.

A few days ago, in warm weather, blackbirds and robins were mating with beautiful singing and even building their nests, whilst the large flock of rooks in a nearby rookery were voraciously eating worms in a field. Today, they are nowhere to be seen even though my birdfeeders are stacked well with fat-balls and peanuts. In the fields below my house, the pregnant sheep, at the start of the spring lambing season, are huddled together in the shelter of the leeside of a stone wall as the easterly air-blasts whip snow over them to accumulate in snow-drifts beyond.

Somerset – March 2

Today, sections of the main arterial motorway to the Southwest of England have been closed and rail lines shutdown as points and rails freeze. All schools have been closed for at least two days. Locally, the country road to my hamlet is impassable through deep drifting snow. The beastly bitter winds from the cold Siberian air-mass have met up with a big Atlantic cyclone (Storm Emma) where the latter, a less dense but warmer and moisture ridden air-mass, has been undercut by the denser Siberian air. Forced to rise over colder denser air, the warmer Atlantic air has cooled and condensed in the form of snow and now ice rain making driving conditions impossible.

Looking through past newspaper records, I found that exactly 40 years ago a Somerset newspaper recorded this: “In March, Somerset is a vast white desert after gale force winds whipped up 4.6 metres high snow drifts, leaving thousands of people stranded in isolated villages.” Electricity pylons collapsed as did telephone line posts, commercial greenhouses were shattered under the weight of accumulated snow, and people had to be rescued by helicopters while cattle and people were fed by helicopter drops.

Today, my heart bleeds for the arable farmers who will now have to delay planting their arable crops, for the ground is frozen; also for the sheep farmers, in this red alert area and on exposed moorlands, who may well have to literally dig their pregnant ewes out of snowdrifts. There is an important spin-off for arable farmers, in that the frozen soil will kill off unwanted insect pests.

Meanwhile police forces can expect a reduction in burglary crime rates. Today and for the last two nights, my local police force has been braving these hostile conditions in rescuing stranded vehicles and their passengers, coping with traffic accidents and delivering food to cut-off villagers. The military is on amber alert and ready to help out.

Debateable changes

We must seriously ask ourselves, wherever we live, be it 5 or 50 degrees north of the Equator, as to whether the seeming downturns in our weather patterns are just anomalies or are they the gradual effect of climate change? Scientific evidence strongly points towards the latter.

Try to keep cool and dry in Sabah and Sarawak as I shall attempt to keep warm in Somerset as the blizzards sweep over me. At least I have a good stock of food and a recent supply of kiln-dried logs for my wood burning stove. Despite this recent ‘cold war’ battle and its problems, I would not want to move to a more ‘civilised’ urban environment.

This is the price I pay for living in a relatively remote rural area with Mother Nature all around me and another blizzard raging outside.

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