In Depth

Will the UK have a white Christmas?

Unsettled weather could give way to snowflake showers, says Met Office

Britons dreaming of a white Christmas have been left disappointed in recent years.

But the BBC’s meteorologist Chris Fawkes has said that “for some, it could be a white Christmas” this year. 

There will be “enormous temperature contrasts across the UK” this week, with northern areas more likely to see “some snow showers” than milder southern regions after unsettled conditions clear the way for cold, bright weather near the end of the week, he said.

So what are your chances of waking up to a sprinkling of snowflakes on Christmas day? After a relatively mild autumn, here’s what the forecasters - and bookmakers - are saying. 

How likely is a white Christmas?

Most people imagine a snowy wonderland when they talk about a white Christmas, but the official definition used by the Met Office is “for one snowflake to be observed falling in the 24 hours of 25 December somewhere in the UK”.

Snowflakes have fallen on Christmas Day in the UK 38 times in the last 52 years, according to the Met’s records.

But those hoping for a thicker blanket of snow have been left wanting: there has only been a substantial covering of snow on the ground (where more than 40% of stations in the UK reported snow at 9am) four times since 1960, none of which were in the past decade. 

The last time the UK celebrated in the snow was in 2010 and even then it didn’t extend to the south of England, which hasn’t seen the white stuff on Christmas Day since 2004.

Forecasters say we are generally less likely to see snow in December than in the following three months. On average, snow or sleet falls for less than four days in December, compared with more than five days in January and February and just over four days in March.

“White Christmases were more frequent in the 18th and 19th centuries, even more so before the change of calendar in 1752 which effectively pushed Christmas day back by 12 days,” says the Met Office.

It is now “extremely unusual” to experience a white Christmas like that of 2010, when snow was recorded on the ground at 83% of the nation's weather stations (the most ever), while snow or sleet fell at 19% of stations.

Air temperatures do not need to drop below zero for snow to fall. In fact, the heaviest snowfalls tend to occur between 0C and 2C, as the slightly warmer air causes snowflakes to melt and stick together forming bigger heavier flakes.

What are the odds for 2021?

“Odds on a white Christmas have been slashed by bookmakers for most major cities,” said Sky News. Even so, “perhaps not surprisingly it is the Scottish cities of Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh that the bookies believe are most likely to receive snow on Christmas Day”, said Gambling.com.

Betfair has the lowest odds on Aberdeen, at 3/10. Edinburgh, Leeds and Manchester also have low odds, while London and Cardiff are on 17/10 and Belfast is on 6/4.

What is the weather forecast for Christmas 2021?

Forecasters say that the coming week’s unsettled weather could give way to cold, clear conditions on the 25 December. The Met Office’s Annie Shuttleworth said that hills in the UK’s northern regions are “probably the most likely place to see any snow”.

Near the end of the week, the Met forecasts milder temperatures in areas below Wales, while colder and brighter weather could be seen in regions above that line.

“We’re expecting to see some snow in the lead-up to Christmas, but it is likely to be over higher ground,” said Shuttleworth. “You couldn’t rule out some sleety snow further south than that, but there’s a really big question mark on it.” She added that snowfall at lower levels is expected to be “quite sleety and to not last very long”.

Where are the snowiest places in the UK?

Snowy conditions are typically most often seen in the east and north-east of the UK. 

Predictably, Scotland dominates the Met Office chart of the top ten snowiest places in the country. With 76 days of snowfall recorded at Cairngorm chairlift’s weather station, it has the highest average number of days of snow falling a year (based on 1981-2010 averages). In second place, the weather station on the Shetland Islands Baltasound has on average 65 days.

Copley in County Durham is England’s snowiest place with snow falling on average 53 days each year. Widdybank Fell, located in the heart of the North Pennines, is the second snowiest place in England.

In Wales, snow can sometimes be seen on the mountains of Snowdonia from October onwards. Denbighshire, Pembrokeshire and the Brecon Beacons are all good contenders too. For Northern Ireland, the mountains of Sperrin, Antrim and Mourne see around 35 days a year of snowfall, according to the Met’s records.

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