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Is It Going to Snow Properly in London Ever Again?

We asked an expert to find out.

by Amy Walker
03 March 2017, 8:00am

(Top photo: some snow in central London. Photo: Paolo Camera, via)

Unless you live beyond Zone 3, it's unlikely you'll have seen proper snow in London for what seems like a decade. Never does it get to the point where you're forced to work from home – or, if you are a child, "forced" to miss a day of school – because snow has fallen and broken all of the roads. Instead, there is sleet and slush and delayed but ultimately still working buses, ready and willing to transport you to somewhere you'd rather not be.

To find out why it doesn't snow properly in London any more – why, in essence, the environment is cursing all children and working adults – I spoke to Mike Kendon, a Climate Information Specialist at the Met Office.

VICE: It feels like it's been forever since it properly snowed in London. Why is that?
Mike Kendon: Well obviously it's very unusual to have heavy snow in central London, but when we look back through historical records there are a number of examples in the last 50 years or so. 

So those were just random occurrences? 
No. Looking over a period from 1960 onwards, there's a lot of year to year variability, but there is a declining trend in the snow in central London. There's typically been a lot less snow in the last couple of decades compared to, say, the 1980s and the 1960s. We [the Met Office] calculate standard 30-year averages for snow variables: the number of days of snow lying – which is defined as snow covering at least half of the ground at 09:00 GMT – and the number of days of sleet and snow falling at any time during the day. For each of those, if we compare averages for the period 1961 to 1990 against the period 1981 to 2010, the number of days of sleet and snow falling in central London has gone from 21 on an annual basis down to ten. And if we look at the number of days of snow lying, it's gone from eight down to five. So obviously it's a relatively unusual thing to happen anyway, but it has significantly reduced.

So decades from now, will London kids' only experience of snow days be via hearing their parents reminisce about their school years?
I think it's fair to say they may well be, in that basically the UK's climate is warming. 

"From the UK's point of view, thinking about things like weather impact, snow is obviously generally negative."

So there's no way we can make it snow again?
Ultimately, if we want to try to reduce the upward trend in global temperature, that is a huge global policy decision in the hands of world leaders. The way in which the global climate reacts is relatively slow, and there is a long lag in the system. So even if all emissions were cut now it would still take a long time for that signal to come through and affect the global temperature. It's not like we can take action in order to try to have snow in London again.

Do we actually need snow? What would happen if it never snowed again?
From the UK's point of view, thinking about things like weather impact, it's obviously generally negative. You think about the standard impacts on roads, rail transport, infrastructure and so on – people trying to get to work, that sort of thing. It impacts on health, so elderly people slip, trip and fall on ice.

So it's a good thing to not have snow?
In some ways it could be a good thing. But you could look at it the other way and say that if we get used to a situation in which the norm is very little snow, then when, due to the variability, all of a sudden we do get a severe snow event, it's possible that we might be less prepared for it. Because ultimately I suppose that's a question of how much investment do you make in infrastructure for clearing snow relative to the probability you think of it actually happening? So that is a financial decision.

So there's no environmental impact?
This is well outside the area we look at, I would say. But as a general point there's bound to be both positives and negatives. So you might start to see other species coming into the UK that weren't there before. On the other hand, there might be species that live in upland areas. For example, [species native to] the Cairngorms [mountain range in Scotland] – where they actually need to have snow – with a warming climate they lose that habitat. So I think the message would be there's always winners and losers. As always, it's a complex situation.

Thanks, Mike.

@amyrwalker

Tagged:
environment
climate
snow
weather