Multi-century trends to wetter winters and drier summers in the England and Wales precipitation series explained by observational and sampling bias in early records

Conor Murphy, Robert L. Wilby, Tom K. R. Matthews, Peter Thorne, Ciaran Broderick, Rowan Fealy, Julia Hall, Shaun Harrigan, Phil Jones, Gerard McCarthy, Neil MacDonald, Simon Noone, Ciara Ryan

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Globally, few precipitation records extend to the 18th century. The England Wales Precipitation (EWP) series is a notable exception with continuous monthly records from 1766. EWP has found widespread use across diverse fields of research including trend detection, evaluation of climate model simulations, as a proxy for mid-latitude atmospheric circulation, a predictor in long-term European gridded precipitation data sets, the assessment of drought and extremes, tree-ring reconstructions and as a benchmark for other regional series. A key finding from EWP has been the multi-centennial trends towards wetter winters and drier summers. We statistically reconstruct seasonal EWP using independent, quality-assured temperature, pressure and circulation indices. Using a sleet and snow series for the UK derived by Profs. Gordon Manley and Elizabeth Shaw to examine winter reconstructions, we show that precipitation totals for pre-1870 winters are likely biased low due to gauge under-catch of snowfall and a higher incidence of snowfall during this period. When these factors are accounted for in our reconstructions, the observed trend to wetter winters in EWP is no longer evident. For summer, we find that pre-1820 precipitation totals are too high, likely due to decreasing network density and less certain data at key stations. A significant trend to drier summers is not robustly present in our reconstructions of the EWP series. While our findings are more certain for winter than summer, we highlight (a) that extreme caution should be exercised when using EWP to make inferences about multi-centennial trends, and; (b) that assessments of 18th and 19th Century winter precipitation should be aware of potential snow biases in early records. Our findings underline the importance of continual re-appraisal of established long-term climate data sets as new evidence becomes available. It is also likely that the identified biases in winter EWP have distorted many other long-term European precipitation series.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)610-619
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Climatology
Issue number1
Early online date26 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020


  • data quality
  • drier summers
  • England Wales Precipitation
  • Gordon Manley
  • historical climate
  • sleet and snow
  • wetter winters
  • UK
  • BACK

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