Continuing our occasional series examining wonders of the natural world, we ask: who is this 'beast from the east'?
Each winter, weather watchers spend hours poring over the charts and models looking for signs of an intense cold spell. Tabloid newspapers also enjoy ramping the excitement, forecasting “snowmaggedon” and months of “arctic hell”. Their prognostications mostly come to nothing, and the dank weather paddles along in its customarily dreary rut.
Despite our northerly latitude, an oceanic climate at the end of a warm sea current mean that the British Isles usually enjoy damp, mild, windy winters, and summers, and springs. It’s what we are happy bemoaning, and it keeps our fields green.
Just occasionally, something remarkable happens, and all the usual certainties and banalities are upended. At the other side of the planet, a butterfly might beat its wing and cause an eddy. One thing leads to another, and before long a mighty Pacific current, greater far than a thousand Amazons, reverses its direction; particularly warm or cold water floods east, and everything in the jungle basin is upset: droughts, floods, wild-fires, uncustomary cold and heat, and the effects ripple outwards into Africa, Euroasia, Australia: the earth’s climate reels.
In our own hemisphere, these huge forces perturb the delicate interplay of Atlantic warmth and Arctic cold. In winter, an intense high pressure over Scandinavia might form, greeted with joy and excitement by the weather nerds. This rare Scandi-High presages punishing conditions locally with snow and icy winds whipping up blizzards, spectacular snow drifts and lethal freezing rain. It is called the Beast from the East. The effect is phenomenal, but the impacts are always personal: cancelled appointments, frustrated meetings, a shortage of supplies, and everywhere travel plans sent into chaos.
The Beast is a sly minx, quietly lurking most of the year somewhere in the tundral wastes of outer Siberia. All it takes is for the conditions to be favourable, and out she screams, turning everything in her path to shattering ice. Nor does she respect the usual rules of the weather, but reminds everyone in defiance of their eyes, that this is all perfectly normal. Remember 1947, or 1963, or 1982? Britain at its finest.
‘Your climate’, she says portentously, ‘has decided to deflect all its usual stormy activity far south over Spain so that you can enjoy a period of glacial paralysis. There will be persistent snow and deep frost, even during this spring period. The misery is all perfectly within the bounds of statistical normalcy.’
The infuriating thing about the Beast from the East is that while she is well forecast to arrive, it is uncertain when she will depart. In a good winter, the iciness can last for weeks or months; or, just when you think you’ve done with her, she might send repeated frigid glances interspersed with spells of unsettling mildness. She can stay through summer, visiting drought and polluted air over our benighted shores, but always accompanied by that nagging, unpleasant nip when she shows her face.
She is a force of nature. Unpredictable, untamed, and unloved, except by the enthusiasts who thrill to her ruthless demands. ‘Your weather will do exactly what it pleases’, she says bending them over and giving them another smarting thwack across their fleshy behinds. ‘Oh you lovely beast,’ they shudder, ‘life would be so dull without you’.