Heatwave frequency and duration in central England since 1878

There seem to be an endless fascination with heatwaves and how they’ve been on in the increase in recent years due to global warming, the jet stream or something such, so I decided the easiest way to see if this were true was to examine the frequency and duration of heatwaves in the UK myself. Enter the central England temperature series, which since 1878 has included the daily maximum composite temperature. So before we can go any further we need a definition of what constitutes a “heatwave”, because of course all countries use different criteria. But as we are British, and proud of it, there’s no better source of an exact definition than the Met Office, so for the next two paragraphs I’m going to quote verbatim from the Met Office.

What is a heatwave?

A heatwave is an extended period of hot weather relative to the expected conditions of the area at that time of year, which may be accompanied by high humidity.


What is the definition of a UK heatwave?

A UK heatwave threshold is met when a location records a period of at least three consecutive days with daily maximum temperatures meeting or exceeding the heatwave temperature threshold. The threshold varies by UK county, see the UK temperature threshold map below.

Courtesy of UKMO

So all that I had to do was to sift through a 140 years of maximum temperature data from the daily CET series, recording any consecutive spells when the temperature was 25°C or more for three or more days. The threshold is the same one used by the Met Office for areas away from the greater southeast of England, as outlined in the last two paragraphs and the map above. Because CET is a composite of the temperature from three separate regions, the number of heatwaves you find using it, will naturally be slightly less than if you had access the more extreme regional values. Here’s the table of annual totals ranked by total heatwave days from 1878 up till now, interestingly this year has only produced one maximum CET of 25°C or higher at the time of writing.

Top 16 heatwaves in Central England 1878-2020
Top 16 heatwaves in Central England 1878-2020

So the first thing to notice from the table is that 1976 come in at only joint second place with 27 days, equal to the total number of heatwave days for last year (2018), and a full 5 days behind the very warm summer of 1995. There are four years from the 21st century in the top 10 which maybe in itself is statistically significant.

Long term trends

So the trouble with the idea of using a fixed threshold of 25°C for the whole series since 1878, is that summers [JJA] in the CET series have warmed by 1.0°C in that time, this is obviously going to throw up more “heatwave” events for recent years than in the late Victorian era, which sounds obvious but maybe not the best way of identifying a “heatwave” at the time. The best way to identify a heatwave is to maybe use daily anomalies for the whole period (1878-2018) but that’s a step too far for this article.

So graphing the annual number of heatwave days, adding a five year moving average and also a couple of linear trends for the whole series and for the last 30 years, this is what you get.

Heatwaves in central England (1878-2020)
Heatwaves in central England (1878-2020)

So what does the bar chart and linear trend reveal? Well there has been a 44% increase in the number of “heatwave days” in central England since 1878. This 45% equates to 3.2 extra days of “heatwave” per year on average, increasing from just 2.5 days in 1878 (which interestingly doesn’t make the criteria of three days for a heatwave) to 5.7 days in 2020. The trend over the last 30 years (in blue) has shown a slight decrease. Make of this what you will. All I know is that heatwaves have always occurred and as they will continue to occur in the future. There was a scarcity of heatwaves in the 1960’s and mid 1980’s, but at other times, around the millenium for example, they were a regular feature of any summer.

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