Mark Hunt weather corner; 114 - Is it possible to learn lessons from this winter?

Mark Huntin Weather Corner

It is 35 years since I first started working in the amenity market as a wet-behind-the-ears technical representative for a company called Sierra. A lot has changed from now to then, but none more so than our weather.

I remember delivering a talk to an educational conference over 20 years ago which I entitled ‘Fit for purpose’. I took projections from The Met Office for our future climate and asked how, as an industry, we need to adapt to the predicted change in our climate.

Back then, those Met Office predictions pointed to:

  • Warmer and wetter winters √
  • Wetter in the north and west, drier in the south and east           x
  • Hotter and drier summers    √ & x

Fast forward to the present day and you could easily argue that we are now managing the impact of that predicted changing climate.

Two images from The Met Office neatly summarise this winter, here is the first:

This image shows the % of average rainfall - Winter 2024 vs 1991-2020 average. In it we can see that the magnitude of the rainfall variation this winter is significant, with the scale topping out at 170% of average. Putting that into simple figures, a location that on average receives 500mm of rain over the winter would have received 850mm of rain, that’s an additional 350mm or 14“ in old money. 

Looking at the distribution of that rainfall, it isn’t west and north-biased, if anything it is central and easterly-biased. This doesn’t mean that the west wasn’t wet, it just means that the biggest increases in rainfall vs. the 30-year average weren’t in the west, they were in The Midlands, east and north of England and east of Scotland.

Why was the distribution like this?

Well, that is a complicated question and one I freely admit takes me out of my meteorological comfort zone. From an observational perspective, I have noted over the last 5 years, more and more low pressure systems coming in from the south rather than the more atypical south west. These systems also tend to be slower moving and deliver more rain at a higher rain rate intensity.

They are doing this because the jet stream position has sat further south for longer this winter. The image below from for early April ‘24 shows the low-lying jet stream position (thick blue line) and a veritable succession of low pressure systems working across the southern half of the U.K and Ireland. Quite why the jet stream has behaved like this is the question I can’t currently answer.

The second Met Office image looks at the temperature anomaly vs. the mean temperature for that same time period,1991-2020. Again, look at the scale, we are looking at +2°C average temperature anomaly for the southern half of the U.K, including South Wales.

Now there’s a simple fact, warmer air holds more moisture and so, for any low pressure system that we experience with a warmer air mass, we will get more rainfall and, specifically, more intense rainfall as I have documented in previous articles. For every 1°C warming of the air, 7% more moisture is held in the atmosphere.

More temperature also means more Growth Degree Days, and Growth Potential from a plant growth perspective.

And that brings me neatly to the debate we have to have.

Namely, are we still fit for purpose?

If I look at the plethora of images on social media showing fairways that have 10” of grass because they have been uncuttable since October, course and pitch closures, the loss of revenue, the impacts of this winter cut deep, financially (and mentally) it has to be said. In these situations, you have to say, no we are not. In some cases, and particularly on heavy soil types, our facilities are unable to cope with current climate fluctuations of the like I have detailed, they simply weren’t designed to.

The problem is that to solve these issues takes a significant financial commitment, and it isn’t a one-off. It isn’t just a case of installing more drainage in more areas because, unless you work the surface above that drainage on a consistent basis, it will become capped off by organic matter; so, the commitment is a continuous one if you want to offer playable surfaces in a winter like we have just had. No magic silver bullet solution here.

From a growth perspective, you could apply a wall-to-wall PGR and iron, to hold back the growth and reduce the cutting frequency (and smearing of worm casts at the same time). Again, this represents a significant financial commitment and one you have to make in the absence of knowing whether the coming winter will warrant it. Another tough call.

I don’t have all of the answers, but before we forget what we have just endured, time should be made to sit down, consider and quantify the issues we have faced and determine whether a strategy can be implemented going forward to mitigate the identified issues. Easy to type, harder to do.