The Weather at Durham in 2003

The warmest and driest year at Durham since records began in the 1850s!

January 2002 (mean air temperature 4.6°C) was even warmer than the previous January, this time 23rd warmest on record, although still way below the 1916 average of 7°C! The absolute maximum of 14.4°C on the 27th was the warmest January day since 1989. We do not maintain a record of highest minima but that of 9.8°C on the 27th must surely be one of the highest ever recorded in Durham in January. There were nevertheless some cold days, especially at the start of the month, and a maximum of only 0.7°C was recorded on the 31st. Rainfall and sunshine were both about average for the time of year. Given what happened later in the year, it is interesting to note that long-term rainfall totals remained well above average: the 12-month rainfall total to 31st January 2002 was 762.8mm, 113.8mm above the long-term average. It was windy in the middle of the month with a gust of 100 km/hour on the 14th.

February was a little colder than normal, a mixture of warmer days but colder nights, implying clear, sunny, anticyclonic conditions. Mean air temperature was the lowest for February since 1996. Both the absolute maximum and absolute minimum were the lowest since 1994, and there was the highest number of ground frosts since 1996. As might be expected from the temperature results, it was a dry and sunny month. Total rainfall was only 6.6mm, the 5th driest February on record since 1850, although 1998 was in fact drier. The number of rain days (4) was the lowest for February since in 1961 (when the record available to me begins). Sunshine was the highest since 1988, and the 5th highest since 1882. As expected, mean wind speed was also below average.

March was well above average temperatures, especially during the day. The mean maximum was the highest since 1990 and 3rd highest on record since 1950 (when my records begin). Given cloud-free skies, nights were cool and temperatures only a little above average. Overall, mean air temperature was exactly the same as last year, well above normal and 12th equal highest since 1850. Remarkably, March has been warmer than this five times since 1990, including 2000. The absolute maximum (16.8°C) was the highest since 1991, and equalled that in 1998. It was the driest March since 1997, and the wettest day (only 4.8mm) was the lowest daily March total since 1993. It was the 16th driest March since 1852. Compared to the situation at the beginning of the year, the three-month rainfall total was by now well below average, and the 6-month and 12-month totals had fallen close to average. March 2003 was most remarkable for the amount of sunshine. It was the 3rd sunniest March on record (185 hours), beaten only by 1907 (187) and 1894 (191). It was the first March since 1962 (when the available record begins) when there was measurable sunshine on each and every day of the month.

April was the 4th warmest since 1850 and the warmest since 1987 (1949 holds the record). The 17th was the warmest April day ever recorded at Durham (since 1847), the maximum of 24.1°C beating the previous record of 23.8°C. The mean daily maximum was the warmest since 1950; the mean daily minimum was the highest since 1993. Rainfall in April 2003 was exactly the same as in 2002, the driest Aprils since 1997. This was the third very dry month in a row, and indeed the three-month total (35.8mm) is the second lowest total for any consecutive three months since 1850, the driest such period being December 1857 – February 1858. The number of rain days (8) was the lowest since 1982. It was a little less sunny than April 2002 but otherwise the sunniest since 1995.

May was another warm month: with both mean daily maximum and mean daily minimum 1.2°C above average, it was not surprising that the mean air temperature was well above the long-term mean (+1.7°C) too. It was the warmest May since 1999 and 8th equal warmest on record since 1852. The warmest May on record is 1952 (12.4°C). Rainfall was a little below average. The three-month total to 31st May remained exceptionally low, and while not as extreme at the end of April, was still the 50th lowest in the series of 1819 3-month totals since 1850. Sunshine in May fell a little below average, but nevertheless the total so far in 2003 remained well above the long-term mean.

June was remarkably warm. The mean maximum was the warmest since 1992 and the mean minimum the warmest since 1950 (when my available record begins). At 15.6°C, the mean air temperature for June was 2.3°C above average, the third equal highest (with 1976) since 1850; only 1858 (15.6°C) and 1940 (15.9°C) have had been warmer. The first six months of 2002 were the warmest on record (8.57°C); for 2003, it was only the third warmest January – June period on record, a mere 0.1°C lower than in 2002! It seemed wet in June, with some sharp showers, but the total of 34.4mm was below average. The six-month total of 172.8 is the sixth lowest January-June total on record since 1850, and the 32nd lowest of any 6-month total. The wettest day was the 17th with a total of 9mm. Sunshine remained well above average for the year, despite only average amounts in June. It was the 7th sunniest first half to a year since 1882. The record year was 1949 when there had been 907.1 hours of bright sunshine by the end of June, almost 70 hours ahead of the 2003 figure.

July was another warm month, the warmest July since 1995 and 9th equal warmest since 1850 (the warmest being 1983 – 17.7°C). The mean minimum temperature was again the highest since 1995, while the mean maximum was the highest since at least 1950 (when the available record begins). The absolute minimum was also the highest on record since 1950. Rainfall was just above average, but long-term totals continued to be below average. The 6-month total to 31st July (166.6mm) was the 28th lowest 6-month total in a sequence of 1815 months since 1850. The first three days of the month were all modestly wet, but the wettest day was the 27th with 10mm. Sunshine was just a little below average.

August was a warm, dry month, but again with only average sunshine. Although at times it felt exceptionally warm, in fact the mean daily maximum temperature was only the 9th highest on record since 1950, whilst the mean daily minimum temperature was the 4th highest on record since 1950. Together, these provided a mean air temperature of 16.7°C, 6th equal warmest on record since 1850 (equal to last year and behind 1947, 1995, 1997 and the record holder 1975, 17.6°C). The absolute maximum of 28.6°C on the 10th was the 6th highest since 1962 but well below the record holder 1990, 32.5°C. It was a dry month with only 9.6mm rainfall recorded. Not surprisingly the highest daily rainfall, only 6.2mm, was the lowest such total since 1972. Not surprisingly, all the longer-period totals were by now well below average but despite the dryness, there was only an average amount of bright sunshine.

Considering the summer as a whole, it turned out to be the warmest summer on record in Durham since records began in 1850, 16.2°C, beating the previous record from 1933 (16.1°C). It was also the driest summer since 1995. Using the Davis index of summer weather, which weights average temperature, rainfall and sunshine values for the months of June, July and August, 2003 ranks the 14th best summer since 1886; 1976 tops the rankings. On this basis, we can expect as good a summer as this in Durham roughly once a decade.

September was another warm month, above average mainly because of higher than normal daytime temperatures. Overall, it was the warmest September since 1999 but, that year apart, the warmest September since 1981 and 20th equal warmest since 1852. Problems with our tipping-bucket raingauge meant that it was necessary to reconstruct the rainfall record using data from the nearby Barker’s Haugh gauge: on this basis, total rainfall was estimated to be slightly below average. Sunshine was only a little above average, with the number of days with no sunshine the lowest since 1998.

October was cooler than expected, particularly at night. The mean air temperature was the lowest October figure since 1994. Once again, rainfall was estimate using data from Barker’s Haugh: the estimated total of 32.2mm is more than 20mm below average, the lowest October total since 1996. As a result, long-period rainfall totals fell even further below average. It was a relatively sunny month, the sunniest October since 1998.

November was a warm month, 10th equal warmest on record since 1850. Both mean daily maximum and mean daily minimum were well above average. The absolute maximum (15.7°C on the 7th) was the warmest November day since 1996, whereas the absolute minimum (-3.7°C on the 24th) was the lowest since 1992. The Durham raingauge was now working properly again, but only 17mm rainfall was recorded for November, a very dry month therefore – 8th driest since 1852 and the driest November in Durham since 1956. Sunshine in November was just below average, but the accumulated total since 1st January remained well above average. There was a low number of days with no sunshine recorded (3); only 1999 has recorded an equally low total since 1950.

Once again, it was a very mild autumn, the 16th equal warmest on record (10.0°C) since 1850, but still somewhat below the remarkable figure for 2002 (11.1°C).

The autumn rainfall total of 102.4mm is the 15th lowest on record, the driest autumn since 1989. Out of 1823 possible 3-month totals since March 1852, this total ranked only 280th, not particularly unusual. The 6-month total to 30th November, however, ranked 99th lowest and the 12-month total remarkably ranked 24th lowest (out of a total of 1812 12-month periods), the driest 12-month period since 1988/89. It was clear therefore that, by the end of November, North-East England was in a severe period of drought, exacerbated by the dry autumn.

December mean air temperature was above average (for the 10th time in 12 months), although only modestly so: December 2003 ranks only 104th out off 154. Mean maximum temperature was somewhat above average (11th equal highest since 1950), reflecting the sunny days, but the mean minimum was just below average. There was a relatively large range, with an absolute maximum of 12.8°C and an absolute minimum of – 8.1°C, the lowest December temperature since 1995. Rainfall was just above average, but lower than in December 2002, so the 12-month total fell, unlike the 3 – and 6-month totals which recovered a little from their very low levels in November. This was only the 3rd month in 2003 to have above-average rainfall, and the largest positive deviation – a massive 9.8mm! It was a sunny month, remarkably so given the rainfall total, the 3rd sunniest December since 1882. There were only 9 days with no sunshine recorded, a relatively low number and the 10th equal lowest figure since 1950.

For the year as a whole, 2003 was:

1) The warmest year in Durham since records began in 1850, with a rounded-up figure of 9.9°C, 1.3°C above the long-term mean (I continue to use the 1961-90 mean; the overall mean for 1850-2003 is 8.5°C). The 2-decimal figure for 2003 of 9.88°C beats 2002 (9.80°C) and 1949 (9.83°C). Remarkably, the monthly running mean never edged above 10°C, but stayed pretty close all through the year! It is worth noting that the mean for the 1960s (a relatively ‘cold’ decade) was only 8.3°C; 2003 was more than 1.5°C above that level therefore, a remarkably large and rapid warming in less than four decades.

2) The driest calendar year in Durham since records began (this time the complete record runs from 1852), 2003’s 408.8mm just falling below the 1989 total of 415.3mm. As noted above, only three months recorded totals (just) above average. The total is a huge 240.2mm below the long-term average for Durham – no wonder there are real worries about severe water shortages in 2004.

This is not, however, the driest 12-month period on record at Durham, but only the 12th driest in a series of 1813 12-month periods since December 1852. Years when there were even lower 12-month totals include 1905, 1949, 1959, 1973 and 1989; the driest 12-month period on record at Durham was from August 1904 to July 1905 inclusive when only 362.5mm rainfall was recorded.

3) The 12th sunniest year in Durham since 1882, but still more than 150 hours less than the record holder, 1989.

Professor Tim Burt
Department of Geography
Durham University