As November draws to a close and temperatures begin to plummet, the thoughts of many Britons are inevitably turning towards Christmas and whether the country will finally see the fabled blankets of snow we promise ourselves every year on a million greetings cards but which rarely actually materialise.
Our obsession with the phenomenon cannot be blamed solely on Charles Dickens, who depicted memorably snowy Christmases in The Pickwick Papers and “A Christmas Carol”, as it was a regular occurrence between 1550 and 1850, when the UK was in the grip of a “Little Ice Age” and endured temperatures so low that it was still possible to hold a “Frost Fair” on the frozen surface of the River Thames in London as late as the winter of 1813/14.
Bing Crosby’s famous song “White Christmas” from the 1954 film of the same name, first groaned by the American crooner in the earlier Holiday Inn, has also unquestionably played an important role in planting the idea within the popular imagination, its association of the yearning for winter snows with sorrow at the loss of one’s youth as irresistibly poignant a theme as it is universal.
So how about our prospects for 2021?
Well, the latest forecast from the Met Office indicates that Arctic winds could be about to drive temperatures in southern England below zero next week, which could in turn bring early snow, a promising omen.
Scotland, meanwhile, could see the white stuff begin to fall as soon as this Thursday, at least on higher ground.
“Several shots of Arctic air are on the way to the UK later this week as the jet stream dips southwards bringing much colder and wetter weather,” the institution tweeted. “Strong winds may bring some disruption by the weekend with snow possible in places.”
As for a White Christmas, it is too soon to begin making predictions with any confidence but, interestingly, The Mirror reports that uncertainty currently reigns to such an extent that the Met Office and the BBC are said to be “at war” over the issue, so opposing are their respective forecasts.
While the former is predicting months of only mild weather ahead “consistent with a warming climate”, the latter, which takes its information from private contractor Data Transmission Network, says the UK is about to be hit by a deep freeze.
“It’s meteorological mayhem with huge disagreement on what happens in the months ahead,” former weatherman John Hammond, who has worked for both sides, told the tabloid.
“They are starkly different forecasts and can’t both be right. There are huge implications for customers such as government, the energy sector, media and a wide range of other industries. Back-pedalling will be required by one of the big boys. Who will blink first?”
The fact is that the weather on Christmas Day has been incredibly variable for decades, with the coldest temperature ever recorded in the British Isles an astonishing -18.3C, which struck Gainford in Durham in 1878, according to the Met Office.
By contrast, the warmest was a positively sweltering 15.6C, which was noted in Killerton, Devon, in 1920.
The deepest snow ever seen on Christmas morning was the 47cm recorded at Kindrogan in Perthshire, Scotland, in 1981.
As the Met Office hinted in its most recent pronouncement on the question, climate change means higher temperatures over land and sea, which would suggest that the chance of a White Christmas in Britain is now less likely in the 21st century.
But it does offer grounds for hope: “The natural variability of the weather will not stop cold, snowy winters happening in the future. In fact, in terms of widespread sleet/snow falling across the UK on Christmas Day, between 1971 and 1992 there was only one year (1980), whereas in the years 1993 to 2004 there were six such occasions.”
The yardstick for ruling that a White Christmas has occurred used to be a lone snowflake being spotted falling on the Met Office operations centre in London but, since the service moved to Exeter in September 2006, the phenomenon is now officially confirmed if so much as a single snowflake is spotted falling at any point within the 24 hours of 25 December at one of 12 major UK airports.
Technically, the last White Christmas in the UK took place on 25 December 2017, when 11 per cent of British weather stations reported snow falling, even though none of it settled on the ground.
We did see flurries of snow on the ground in 2015 but the last really significant and widespread deluge came in 2010, the coldest December in a century, when 83 per cent of weather stations reported flakes on the pavement.
Bookmaker William Hill, basing its calculations on information from Exacta Weather, says Leeds-Bradford Airport, the UK’s highest at 700 feet above sea level, has the best chance of snow on Christmas Day, and is currently offering odds of 3/1.
Expecting the coldest winter since 2010, the bookie says the odds on snow falling at Liverpool and Manchester airports have been cut to 7/2 and 4/1 from 8/1 and 13/2 respectively.
Its former frontrunner, Edinburgh (10/3), is now joined by Glasgow (7/2) among the most likely to see snow on Christmas morning, while Newcastle and Birmingham are both rated at 4/1, Belfast is on 9/2, Dublin and London are at 6/1 and Bristol and Cardiff are 8/1.
Rupert Adams, a spokesperson for William Hill, said: “Forecasting snow is done with near-perfect accuracy within five days, and so it remains notoriously tricky business, especially for bookmakers.
“But with a keen eye on long-range forecasting and available modelling, coupled with the increased likelihood of cold spells during the early part of the winter, due to an expected La Nina ENSO state, the stars, or clouds, could well align this year, and deliver a White Christmas.”
Also offering odds on a White Christmas in 2021 are Ladbrokes, whose spokesperson Alex Apati said: “Plenty of punters will be dreaming of a White Christmas this year, and the odds suggest they could well get their wish, with 2/1 being on offer for any part of the UK to wake up to snow on 25 December.”