What's with the weather?
Author(s): Marsali Taylor
Copyright holder(s): Marsali Taylor: Text reproduced with the kind permission of Shetland Life
Or, more simply, total number of days I've had the boat out between April and October: 8.
Dave Wheeler is the Fair Isle weatherman whose weekly forecast in The Shetland Times kept up the gloom and despondency. Each week, I'd turn to page 7 and read 'strong winds - rain - gale force winds' yet again, and realise I wouldn't be on the water that week either.
Was it really that bad? A look back over Dave's statistics comparing 2005 to the averages from 1971 - 2000 says, yes, it really was. April was just about average in everything: hours of sunshine, rainfall, average temperature, amount of frost and wind. May began the downhill trend: temperatures only slightly lower than usual, but rainfall up by a third, 19 wet days instead of 10, and 5 days of snow/sleet instead of the average 2.2.
June kept it up: although temperatures were around average, the total rainfall was almost half again, 95.4mm instead of the average 58.6, and the sunshine hours were also down from the average 148 to 135. The highest temperature we got in June was 16.4 °C (that was the bonny day I remembered). July wasn't as wet, with rainfall around average, although 12 wet days is still rain every second or third day. Temperatures were average too, but there was a lack of sunshine (108 hours instead of 120), and only one day where the temperature got up to 16°C.
Things really started to go downhill in August. Sunshine continued down (100 hours instead of 125) and rain continued up. We had 3 days of gales, instead of 0.4 days (that was my poor lilies and hollyhocks), with the wind hitting 68 knots at one point.
September managed the warmest day of the year, with 17.4°C on the 4th, but rainfall was well up, with 141mm instead of 115, and sunshine down at 90 hours instead of 100.
In short, it really was as everyone remembers it: not exactly cold, but cloudy and damp.
"It has been a bad summer," Dave Wheeler agreed, "though we have had worse (but not many). It has probably been one of the dullest and wettest on record and, while not cold, it has certainly been lacking in warmth and especially warm sunny days."
However both statistics and memory can be deceptive.
"One tends to remember good days - children remember snow in winter, or playing on the beach in summer. You have to look at the weather record and statistics to see what the weather was really doing, but then you also have to interpret them. This August, for example, was less wet than average until two or three rainfall events brought the total up."
Last summer wasn't that good either; is this part of a trend towards serious climate change or just an unlucky variation? Dave Wheeler reckons there isn't much doubt that the climate of the Earth is getting warmer.
"One of the things that really convinces me is seeing photographs of mountain glaciers. The Arctic is so cold that 3 or 4°C rise in temperature doesn't make much visible difference, but there's more effect on mountain glaciers. If you look at older photographs of them, you can see vegetation right up to the edge of the glacier - it's retreating at a pace the plants can follow. Now, in photos from the last decade, there are huge areas of raw, bare ground where nothing has grown yet - to me that's a sign that the glaciers are melting faster.
"In Shetland, we had a miserable summer, but it wasn't cold - we just had no sunshine, and a greater rainfall. The winter statistics show a change too. The number of days when snow falls is pretty constant, but the number of days when snow is lying has dropped dramatically. It may lie as long as 36 hours, then it's gone. In the late 70s, you'd get 5 to 10 days in February with snow lying."
I feel I've noticed a change in wind direction. In Aith, the predominant wind used to be from the north; now there are fewer northerly gales, and the garden damage is from the south.
Dave agreed that early August gales was a noticeable change. "Our garden got salt blasted from two directions. If you look at the average temperatures of the Shetland climate, including the sea temperature, you'd expect the growing season to last till December - it's the wind and salt that causes damage and so the growing season stops in September/October.
"I feel personally we're seeing more variability, and that's grown over the past few years. In the early 1990s there was that series of gales, when the Braer grounded, but recently it's not been that windy - there have been no tremendous storms, just normal Shetland storms."
There have certainly been more reports of extreme weather worldwide, like the number of hurricanes. Is this part of this increased variability?
"It's been a record year for hurricanes - there have been more this year than ever before. At one stage Hurricane Wilma dropped to the lowest central pressure ever recorded. To form a hurricane, the sea temperature needs to be 27°C or more; the greater numbers means the sea temperature is higher. In Shetland, the sea temperatures have been rising over the past decade - at the start of this year, it was around 2°C above average. However, during the course of this year it fell back to normal."
Dave's not sure, however, whether this is just a temporary blip. "It's hard to say. The sea temperature is just as variable as the climate, but on a longer timescale. The North Atlantic Drift is like a huge river, with whirls and eddies on a timescale of months rather than days. If the sea-ice is melting, then that releases cold, fresh water into the sea. If that continues to happen, then it could disrupt the Gulf Stream, which is what gives us our warmer sea temperatures. It's a huge current which comes up from the Caribbean and Indian Ocean, sinks and returns back, taking about 1000 years for one complete cycle. Cold water coming into it could block that current and stop it returning south, in which case Shetland could end up with a climate rather like Eastern Canada."
Another thing I've been aware of over the last few years is that the weather seems to be getting harder to predict. I used to be able to look out at the sky of a morning and make a good guess what sort of a day it would be; is it changing more quickly now? Dave agrees that it is.
"That's part of this greater variability. The size of the British mainland is the size of a medium High, so if there's a weather system on the UK, we're on the edge of it, getting the Atlantic depressions tracking closer to us, and they're faster moving. These depressions can be quite chaotic - a forecast for 36 hours can be extremely unreliable."
But we used to get highs. Why have they moved away? "The weather is far from simple, but in very simplistic terms, it's linked to sea temperatures - the warmer the seas, the more active the depressions."
Interestingly, Dave's statistics show that some folk wisdom can be right - for example, when people say that Voe show day is always sunny.
"I've compared the weather over 30 years for every day, and it does show a pattern. There's usually snow in mid-December, with more between Christmas and New Year, and early August is usually warm. I tell friends to visit in late May, early June, when they're most likely not to have their travel disrupted with fog. I use those statistics as an extra guide for the 10 day outlook, but the further ahead you're forecasting, the more general you have to be."
Oh well. Still, it's some comfort to know that statistically I can still rely on Folk Festival Saturday for a nice seed-planting day, and expect either a flat calm or a flying gale for Aith Regatta. Oh, yes, and sunshine for the Voe Show. It would be more comforting still to be sure we'd get sunshine next summer.
So what did that summer that wasn't do to us? How about increased levels of depression, due to lack of sunlight? A lot of people have commented on how down they were beginning to feel.
Confidentiality stopped doctors from commenting on that one, and Lena, of Healthcraft, hadn't noticed an increase in people buying vitamins or pick-me-ups: "The people who buy vitamins and such tend to buy them regularly, although people with arthritis, for example, would find that worse in wet weather. What I have noticed, though, is everyone talking about how bad the weather's been - almost everyone who's come in has mentioned it."
How about sales of light boxes? Lena has one. "I've never used it like that - I got it for painting, where you need natural light to see your colours properly. I have lent it to folk, and they've had benefit from using it."
I asked Angela of Well-Being if she'd noticed an increase in interest.
"We've had a lot of people coming in to look at light pods - the smaller version of the light box. People were obviously feeling the lack of light, because we were getting enquiries as early as the end of August - we've sold 17 since then. We've asked those people to come back and give us feedback on how they got on with them. I have one on in the shop here all day, and one at home too, and I do feel it makes a difference. You have to make sure to put it off four hours before bedtime, though."
Why does it make such a difference?
"Sunshine boosts your seratonin, and one of the things that does is helps you absorb calcium, which boosts your vitamin D levels - we have a leaflet about how lack of light can affect you here in the shop. Even people who aren't normally affected by winter may find themselves being affected this year, just because we've had no chance to store seratonin during the summer.
"We're considering letting out light boxes, so that people can try them for two weeks and see if it does make a difference to them. You can hire them through the NHS, but only for a week, and I feel it takes two before you feel the good of it, and then you need to keep using it throughout the winter. The small light pods are £115 each, and you need to sit under them for an hour a day - you don't need to keep your eyes closed, or anything, you could sit and read. The big boxes, you only need 20 minutes, and you can leave them on all day if you like. In Norway and Finland, they install full spectrum bulbs in their houses as a matter of course. We also have full spectrum light bulbs for normal lamps."
Artificial sunlight... a lot of people went for the real thing. How many people have said to you recently, "Oh, I got fed up of waiting, so we booked a holiday in... "Spain / Majorca / Malta / the Canary Islands..." anywhere sunny?
I asked Michelle of Shetland Travelscope if she'd noticed a difference.
"It's been amazing. We had an average of 15% increase in August and a staggering 100% plus in September for bookings. People had just had enough. I had the impression that the Island Games made the summer unusual - most people stayed home to watch, and of course we thought July would be nice weather here. Now they've had enough of the poor weather - so many people have said that - and wanted to get away for October. We've had bookings for next October as well - people don't have faith in getting a decent summer then either! It was mostly last minute bookings, taking advantage of last-minute offers - the biggest problem then, of course, was getting off the island.
"So many people have said that the weren't going to go, but that the weather had decided them they needed a holiday. There weren't that many holidays left, and they were going quickly, so a lot of people weren't going exactly where they'd intended. The most popular destinations were the Canaries, Majorca and Greece, especially for families.
"We're starting to get busy now with Christmas bookings, and we've quite a number of bookings for Easter as well."
Christmas and Easter? What about this forecast of a cold winter? Dave doesn't think we'll get it. "That prediction was for the south of England. They're part of the European high pressure system, and the easterly winds will spread that to affect them. We're on the edge of that high pressure, so we'll get the W or SW winds you mentioned, which means temperatures between 4 and 7°C, with rain."
More rain, huh? Now, where did I put those travel brochures...?
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What's with the weather?. 2023. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 29 November 2023, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1390.
"What's with the weather?." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2023. Web. 29 November 2023. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1390.
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