The UK is facing the prospect of major snowfall and freezing temperatures this week, as an Arctic blast shoots down from the North.
While snowfall in winter can be a minor inconvenience at its best, it can cause major disruption at its absolute worst. Although this current spell is not expected to rank among the worst cold snaps the country has seen, the Met Office has put in place severe weather warnings and freezing temperature alerts.
It will create cost of living anxiety for many people across the UK given how high energy bills are. New research by consumer watchdog Which? has shown many people have been leaving the heating off due to their budgets being squeezed by record inflation and high interest rates.
This winter has seen several short, sharp cold snaps but has generally been milder-than-average. It has been a world away from the Beast from the East weather events seen in 2018 and - to a slightly lesser extent - in 2021, which showed us the true meaning of the word ‘cold’. They led to some of the worst wintry spells the UK had experienced in around a decade.
But is the current freezing spell classed as a Beast from the East - and how does the Met Office define the weather phenomenon?
What is a Beast from the East?
According to the Met Office, a ‘Beast from the East’ is a weather event that sees cold air and, occasionally, intense snowy weather carried into the UK by easterly winds. This kind of event can take place at any time between November and April.
When high pressure gets trapped above Scandinavia, it exposes the UK to what is known as a polar continental air mass. This weather system sucks cold air from Eurasia (especially Russia’s bitterly cold Siberian region) and blasts it at the UK.
If this weather hits the UK via Germany or the Netherlands, it tends to bring about clear skies and icy, frosty conditions. But if it comes across the North Sea from the direction of Denmark or Norway (i.e. further north), it will pick up moisture and bring about heavy rain, sleet or snow - particularly in Eastern areas of Great Britain.
In both scenarios, temperatures are likely to plummet to well-below freezing, remaining below zero even in daylight hours.
Is a Beast from the East 2023 here?
The UK is currently in the midst of what could prove to be a very cold spell for some, with temperatures likely to dip as low as -15C on Tuesday night (7 March) and intense snowfall expected.
Temperatures routinely hit double-digits across many parts of the country in February, but have slipped back so far in March. Many parts of the UK will not see temperatures climb far above freezing - if at all - this week but they could return to double figures over this weekend, according to the latest Met Office predictions.
“Snow, ice and low temperatures are the main themes of this week’s forecast, as the UK comes under the influence of an arctic maritime airmass as cold air moves in from the North,” said Met Office chief meteorologist Dan Suri. “Snow is already falling in parts of the north where some travel disruption likely, as well as a chance of some rural communities being cut off.
“Ice will provide an additional hazard for many with overnight low temperatures well below 0°C for many. Further south wintry hazards will develop with parts of England and Wales affected by icy patches and snow in places tonight and likely further snow in parts of the south early Wednesday (8 March).”
The UK Health Security Agency has issued a Level 3 Cold Weather Alert for the whole of England. Dr Agostinho Sousa, head of extreme events and health protection at the public body, said: “During periods like this, it is important to check in on family, friends and relatives who may be more vulnerable to the cold weather, as it can have a serious impact on health. If you have a pre-existing medical condition or are over the age of 65, it is important to try and heat your home to at least 18C if you can.’’
Snow is currently expected to become more of a threat in the North of England and Scotland from Thursday (9 March) morning, and will be accompanied by strong winds, the Met Office says. A band of rain will turn to snow from North Wales upwards, hitting Northern Ireland, the North East and North West by lunchtime and spreading into Scotland by the evening. These conditions will continue into Friday (10 March). At present, Saturday (11 March) looks dry for most, with the potential for another band of snow to move in from Sunday morning (12 March) - although there is still uncertainty about where snow could fall.
Further into March, the forecaster has low confidence about what weather lies in store, but says it expects milder conditions as the middle of the month approaches. It envisages a “greater than normal chance” that colder spells will occur by the time we get to early April, with wintry conditions expected to fall in pockets of the UK.
These conditions have come about as a result of a Sudden Stratospheric Warming event, which has locked in an area of high pressure above Greenland. On its website, the Met Office has provided an explanation of what this term means in practice, saying: “Every year in winter, strong westerly winds circle around the pole high up in the stratosphere. This is called the stratospheric polar vortex and it circulates around cold air high over the Arctic.
“In some years, the winds in the polar vortex temporarily weaken, or even reverse to flow from east to west. The cold air then descends very rapidly in the polar vortex and this causes the temperature in the stratosphere to rise very rapidly, as much as 50°C over only a few days; hence the term sudden stratospheric warming.”
The Met Office adds that the knock-on impact of the cold air being chucked out of the stratosphere is that the jet stream can change shape. It says it makes it “snake more” which creates a big region of “blocking” high pressure over the North Atlantic and Scandinavia.
“This means that northern Europe, including the UK, is likely to get a long spell of dry, cold weather, whereas southern Europe will tend to be more mild, wet and windy. On the boundary of these areas, cold easterly winds develop and in some cases the drop in temperatures leads to snow, which is what happened in early 2018.”
However, the Met Office has tellingly avoided using the phrase ‘Beast from the East’ to describe the current freezing weather gripping the UK. Given the high pressure is sitting above Greenland rather than Scandinavia, cold air is coming at the UK from almost due North rather than from the North East or East. It means we are not being hit by a Siberian wind - the Russian region being one of the coldest places on earth in the northern hemisphere’s winter months.
How bad was Beast from the East 2018?
Very few people will be hoping for a repeat of the Beast from the East in 2018. Between 22 February and 4 March 2018, much of the UK turned white and temperatures struggled to rise above zero. In some areas, temperatures struggled to get above -12℃.
Overall, 10 people died as a direct result of the weather. The Met Office was forced to issue two red weather warnings (in central Scotland and then the South West of England and South Wales), thousands of homes lost power, travel chaos ensued and schools were closed for several days.
While the conditions were severe, temperatures fell even further during a ‘mini’ Beast from the East in February 2021. A low of -22.9℃ was recorded in Braemar, Aberdeenshire.