Parts of Germany, Denmark, the UK and Ireland had severe snowstorms and blizzards during the last days of 1978.
17 February 2021
29 December 1978
By Jochen Kerkmann (EUMETSAT) and Sancha Lancaster (Pactum)
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the launch of Meteosat-1, we take a look at an infamous severe winter of 1978. Meteosat-1, was the first satellite in the Meteosat First Generation series and was launched on 23 November 1977.
During the winter of 1978/79 parts of Europe were hit by severe snowstorms, causing major disruptions, which in some cases lasted for weeks.
Despite the low quality of the Meteosat-1 images, below are two impressive visible animations that show the dramatic situation at the end of 1978: in the arctic air, huge cloud streets across the North Sea and the Irish Sea into the Atlantic with a lot of snow being dumped on the east coast of England, Scotland and Ireland.
On the animated gif from 29 December, 09:00–12:30 UTC (Figure 2) a stationary front can be seen stretching east to west over the UK and Denmark, separating the very cold Arctic air over Scandinavia from the warm air over France and central and southern Germany (westerly flow).
The cold air produces typical cloud streets over the Skagerrak area (although hard to see on this imagery); Scandinavia is fully covered by snow.
Along the stationary front, with strong low level easterly winds, there is heavy frontal snowfall, enhanced by the lake-snow effect.
The extreme weather began on the afternoon of 28 December 1978, when a stable high-pressure area over Scandinavia and a low pressure system over the Eastern Atlantic met over northern Germany. The result was strong wind gusts and squalls.
Due to a fall in temperature, long-lasting precipitation started first as freezing rain and then as heavy snowfall. By 29 December it had become a fully formed snowstorm, with winds raging up to force 10.
It snowed for days without interruption, with Schleswig-Holstein, the country's northernmost state, being the worst hit area.
The consequences were catastrophic:
- Due to the freezing rain, overhead lines were sheathed in ice, making them so heavy that they broke, cutting off electricity supplies.
- Many areas, including the city of Kiel and the maritime town of Husum, were completely cut off from the external world.
- More than 5,000 people had to be evacuated.
- Meter-high snow drifts brought the roads and railways to a halt.
- At least 17 people died.
When snow ploughs failed to cope with clearing the snow, the German Federal Armed Forces' tanks were used. Despite almost nonstop employment of the rescue forces, some people weren't rescued until the spring, when the thaw made it possible to reach them.
As Christmas approached, high pressure began building over Greenland, which eventually forced the jet-stream and attendant low pressure further and further south, over the UK.
A few days after Christmas, bitter easterly winds started to develop over Scotland as low pressure tried to move into central portions of the UK. At the same time bitter Arctic air swept south over Scandinavia, which started to be pulled westwards towards the UK.
By 30 December many parts of northern Britain were reporting snow and falling temps and by the evening an area of low pressure had moved east towards the English Channel, engaging with very cold air on its northern flank. This resulted in a snowstorm for many parts of Southern Britain, driven on by extremely cold easterly winds.
Large snowdrifts caused major disruptions, with some places in Scotland and northern England being cut-off and Heathrow Airport being closed.
The most snow fell between 28 and 31 December, followed by frosts of unusual severity.
The highest depths of snow recorded during this spell were 260 mm at Casement Aerodrome, near Dublin, 160 mm at Claremorris, County Mayo and 150 mm at Cork Airport.
For four days, from 28 December, the snowstorm raged, with the strongest winds and most snowfall over the southern part of the country.
The snow fell relatively evenly over the whole period with 'peaks' of 6-7 mm over six hours as low pressure passed south of the country. In all, 51 mm fell from 28 Dec to 1 Jan 1979.
On New Year's Eve visibility was down to 400 m, with wind speeds of more than 90 km/h.
Weather chart for the afternoon/evening of 31 December 1978 (Wetteronline)
Geopotential and ground pressure NCEP reanalysis chart for 1 January 1979, 00:00 UTC (Wetterzentrale)
Temperature NCEP reanalysis chart (Wetterzentrale) 1 January 1979, 00:00 UTC
Monthly Weather Report for December 1978 (Met Office)
Snowfall in Ireland (Met Éireann)
Galleri: Historiske billeder fra århundredets snestorm i 1978/79 (VEJR, in Danish)
Meteosat-1 case study
How Meteosat-1 'saw' severe storm over Switzerland (7 August 1978)
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