Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Scotland's weather: why is Scotland so warm?

Warm? Are you kidding?

Actually no, I'm not kidding, but anyone who lives in or has visited Scotland will think I'm mad asking such a question. Scotland has a reputation of being a cold, wet, windy country and, speaking as a native, I know that Scotland isn't the warmest nor the driest of countries but, considering its position on the globe it is surprisingly warm - a lot warmer than it should be in fact. Why is this?

First, let's take a look at the northern hemisphere and Scotland's position relative to the north pole. This graphic looks down from above the northern hemisphere. The outer edge of the graphic is the equator and Scotland (the bit at the top of the UK) is marked by the red arrow.
The northern hemisphere looking down on the north pole
Image by Chen-Pan Liao/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 4.0 International
This can be better seen in the graphic below which shows the position of the equator better. The northern hemisphere is in blue and the southern hemisphere is in beige. Where the two hemispheres meet is the equator.
Map of the world showing the equator
Image by DLommes/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported
It is obvious from these graphics that Scotland lies significantly closer to the north pole than it does to the equator. Edinburgh, Scotland's capital city, lies almost on the same line of latitude (ie: the same distance from the north pole) as the town of CHURCHILL in Canada and there polar bears roam the streets during autumn (fall) - it's a big tourist attraction.

Scotland doesn't have that particular problem (or advantage - it depends on how you look at it!) but the point is that the climate in these two places is far different despite their similar distance from the north pole. Russia's capital city, Moscow is also a similar distance from the pole with a similar climate to that of Churchill (minus the polar bears). Scotland's climate/weather is far milder than either of these places. Why is this?

Polar bear walking on ice
Photo by Alan Wilson/Wikipedia (via naturespiconline.com) CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported
One factor is that Scotland is part of a small island country and being a small island country nowhere in the UK is far from the sea and that means that there is no large landmass over which temperatures in winter can fall really low - the seas surrounding the UK help to keep the land warm.

Another, and more important factor, is the Gulf Stream; that warm water current which starts off near Florida, heads north and crosses the Atlantic Ocean sending its northern offshoot, the North Atlantic Drift, towards Europe and the UK. This major ocean current bathes the western coast of the UK all the way up to Scotland and beyond and it is this which is largely responsible for the mildness of Scotland's climate and weather - even during wintertime.

The gulf stream current in the northern hemisphere
Image by RedAndr/Wikipedia via NOAA CC-BY-SA 4.0 International
This has a most unexpected result in terms of some of the flora and fauna which can be found in Scotland. In the town of PLOCKTON and in other places grow what look extraordinarily like palm trees! They are Cordyline australis, the Cabbage Tree (or Cabbage Palm) which is endemic to New Zealand. They are not a tropical plant but are a most unexpected sight in a small Scottish town!

The (relatively) warm waters off the west coast of Scotland result in some unexpected marine visitors during the summer months including the Leatherback Turtle, the Basking Shark (the world's second-largest fish) and the occasional visit from the deep sea Sunfish whilst whale-watching tours are popular in the inner hebridean islands. All these marine creatures are attracted to the west coast of Scotland in summer by the warming influence of the Gulf Stream.

It isn't all rosy!

Just in case you get the idea that Scotland is almost a tropical paradise I should point out that on Scotland's highest hills can be found plants and animals which are more normally found inside the Arctic Circle!

The CAIRNGORM Plateau provides a habitat which is very close to arctic tundra with species of moss and lichen there which are also found in habitats outside Scotland much closer to the arctic. The UK's only herd of reindeer are here as well as ptarmigan (regarded as an indicator species for climate change). Lapland Buntings have also been reported.

At 57 degrees north the Cairngorm Plateau is an unusually cold area of mountain in what is basically a maritime climate - the highest windspeed ever recorded in Scotland (165 mph) and the lowest temperature  (-27.2 centigrade - which has also been recorded elsewhere in the UK) were both recorded on the Cairngorm Plateau.

The Cairngorm Mountain Plateau
Public Domain image from Wikipedia
And don't forget the rain (anyone who has spent any time in Scotland won't forget it!). The western highlands is one of the wettest places in Europe with an average annual rainfall of 4577mm (180 inches) but the east coast (where I live) is much drier with as little as 550mm (21 inches) - pretty much the same as warmer places like Morocco, Sydney and Barcelona.

Despite the rain, tourists still come to Scotland in droves! According to VisitScotland (the Scottish tourist body) tourists stayed for 19.13 million nights and spent £1.170 million in Scotland in 2014 - that's almost half of the tourist traffic for the entire UK!

All in all, thanks largely to the influence of the Gulf Stream, Scotland isn't a bad place to live, weather wise - but then, maybe I'm a little biased!

By the way, did you know that Scotland's national animal is the Unicorn?

Sources: Wikipedia


  1. Rain or snow I still want to see Scotland!

    1. Maybe you should plan your vacation in Scotland!

  2. I did know Scotland national was a unicorn. Unicorns are my daughters and sister favorite thing to collect. I think my sister did a paper on Unicorns years ago where I learnt that.

    If Scotland is as special as you make out to be,I will say rain will not stop a tourist from visiting.

    1. Cold and rain certainly doesn't seem to put off tourists from visiting Scotland - they can always warm up with a wee dram!

  3. If Scotland is as amazing as you describe, rain will not stop a tourist.

    1. It certainly doesn't stop me and many others from visiting Scotland's wild places!