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Focus on climate challenge will come back to forefront of minds


By Jim A Johnston

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North Coast Weather Review: Jim A Johnston looks back at the year's conditions along the north coast, and how they fit the wider context

Storm Arwen, November 26.
Storm Arwen, November 26.

Concerns over weather and climate may have taken a back seat to the demands of the ongoing epidemic in 2021 but, at local, national and worldwide scales there can be no doubt that weather issues, and the longer-term climatic change they reflect, will deserve equal, and eventually greater, prominence as time goes on.

Meanwhile, the weather in our own little corner continues in its changeable way though fortunately free, at least so far, from the horrifying extremes with which many citizens of planet Earth, including some in our own country, have already experienced.

Strathy in January and February, with average temperatures of 2.2°C and 2.5°C respectively was around two degrees colder than the average for the past 20 years thanks to a six-day cold snap from the January 4-9 with lows down to minus 3.3°C followed by a much more prolonged wintry period from January 20 to February 15, with lows down to minus 9.6°C. This saw most standing water with a good covering of ice – attracting some skaters.

In Bettyhill, the Naver was frozen almost to its mouth, something which used to be a frequent occurrence but is now a rarity. While January did produce some snow to accompany the frost, just sufficient to provide a little slushy snowman construction, much of its precipitation fell in two major bursts of rainfall, one of 23.8mm on the 10th and another of 16.2mm on the 20th, just before the frost set in.

Slushy snow, January 24.
Slushy snow, January 24.

Achfary recorded 59.7mm of rainfall on the 10th, more that twice the record single day’s rainfall on the north coast, and illustrating the significance of a westerly location. February’s precipitation was truly extraordinary with a mere 15.9mm finding its way into the rain gauge at Strathy, echoed by 17mm at Croick on the Halladale and 21.4mm at Bettyhil.

This extraordinarily dry February was equalled once at Bowside on the Strathy River in 1959 and beaten at both Bowside and Croick in 1975 with 14mm and 8.2mm respectively.

The next frosty episode of any length took place in April from the 6th to the 13th, with lows down to minus 3.5°C but, from then on, it was completely frost free on the north coast until December 3. However, inland was a different story with Altnaharra’s temperature sinking to minus 2.4°C on June 21 – the summer solstice – while Kinbrace had already notched up (or down) the lowest spring temperature in Scotland at minus 5.9°C on May 3. Strathy also found its way to this title as the coolest place in Scotland on September 27 with its maximum temperature rising to only 9.8°C.

Where rainfall was concerned, January and March both returned close to average figures but February, April, June, July and August were all extraordinarily dry, with only 148mm between them, less than half their average aggregate of 313mm. September, with 113mm, exceeded its norm of 86mm and that pattern was maintained with a vengeance in October and November with 156.8mm and 193.1mm respectively, both well in excess of their long-term averages of 111.8mm and 126.1mm.

December ended the year on a surprisingly dry note with 60.9mm. Ironically, the return of the rain coincided with the arrival in Bettyhill of a squad of geologists and corers complete with their drilling rigs and heavy duty equipment to sink a large number of test holes assessing ground conditions for the long-awaited replacement for Naver Bridge. Sixty wet days in October and November plus another 15 in the first 20 days of December made conditions extremely difficult for them before they departed with the job incomplete on the 20th. Let’s hope for a dry spell when they return early this year to resume operations, including deploying a jack-up rig in the river itself.

Drilling and coring, October 17.
Drilling and coring, October 17.
Naver Bridge, March 2.
Naver Bridge, March 2.

Last year began on a sunny note with 61.1 hours of sunshine recorded at Strathy, making this the second brightest January since records began on the north coast in 1976. February continued in that vein with 127.7 hours – twice the average for the month and five hours more then the previous record set in 2018. March, April, May and June also came in with above average figures but then things fell away a bit as July, August, September and October were all a little below average.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a sunshine figure for November but, given the volume of its rainfall and absence of dry days, can be assured that it followed the downward trend. December, after a dismal start, perked up a bit and delivered 30.3 hours of sunshine, which is just above the 21st-century average for the month so far of 29.2 hours. Sunshine hours for 2021 then, without November, amount to 1,208.1, against the 21st-century average of 1,231.2 which, if November figures were available, would place it very close to average.

And finally, the wind. In this case the comparator is a 10-year dataset assembled at Torrisdale, Skerray by the late Major LCS Spray between 1981 and 1990. The annual run of wind at Torrisdale over that period was 9.9 miles per hour with December the windiest month at 13.3 mph while the least windy month was July at 6.4 mph.

Torrisdale Beach, July 27.
Torrisdale Beach, July 27.

This year at Achina in Bettyhill, where the current recording is made, the annual run of wind was at 6.9mph with November the windiest month at 11mph, while May and July tied for the calmest at 4.8mph. Gusts exceeding 50mph were recorded on nine out of the 12 months with the highest wind speed of 69mph on December 13.

So where do we stand in the broader picture? In 2021 we were fortunate to experience no torrential rainfall, no flooding, no heavy snowfall, no electrical storms and no extreme wind though, when Storm Arwen ripped down the east coast of the UK a few weeks ago with devastating effect, we caught a taste of what it could have been like.

The key indicator of global warming in our area probably lies in the following comparison of annual average temperature from the first decade of my annual north coast weather report from 1976-1985 and the present decade from 2012-2021. In the first the average was 7.7°C while, in the last it was 8.4°C showing a clear increase of 0.7°C over the last 45 years.

This may not seem a lot but it very closely mirrors what is going on across the entire globe with a supercharged atmosphere driving increasingly active weather with deadly consequences already apparent and many more to come. Doing something effective about this is humanity’s greatest challenge in the 21st century.

Threatening clouds at Achneiskich, Bettyhill, September 24.
Threatening clouds at Achneiskich, Bettyhill, September 24.
  • Acknowledgements – Current figures on which this report is based are derived from weather observers Robert Mackay at Strathy, Brian Hart at Croick and George Macintosh at Bettyhill. Historic figures come from datasets created by the late Major LCS Spray at Torrisdale and the late Ack Campbell at Bowside. National references are from Met Office climate reports.
Yellow light at Aird, Bettyhill, December 28.
Yellow light at Aird, Bettyhill, December 28.

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