The Northern Drought - 1984

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A short but intense drought impacting most severely in the northern and western regions of the UK.

Haweswater reservoir, 17th September 1984. The substantial drawdown in the water level has revealed parts of the normally submerged village of Mardale which can be seen in the foreground. ©	J. Pechkam

Haweswater reservoir, 17th September 1984. The substantial drawdown in the water level has revealed parts of the normally submerged village of Mardale which can be seen in the foreground. © J. Pechkam

River flows and reservoir stocks declined steeply through the spring and Drought Orders were widespread by mid-summer. Heavily depleted reservoir stocks, for instance in north Wales and the Lake District, threatened the water resources outlook for some conurbations (e.g. Liverpool) dependent on regional water transfers. Fortunately, the UK’s second wettest autumn in the last 32 years brought a rapid termination to the drought conditions in almost all of the impacted areas.


Audio: Recollections from the 1984 Open Championships

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Policy and Management



In 1983 the months of June (except Scotland), July, August and November were notably dry, and also it was a hot summer. Then after a rather wetter than average winter, 1984 brought a succession of dry months, from March to August (though March was wet on the eastern side of the UK and May was wet in south-eastern areas). May and August were both driest in Scotland and there was ome respite came during the autumn, ending this drought.

The plot below shows the monthly North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) Index for the periods before, during and after the drought. The NAO is a prominent teleconnection pattern in all seasons, and strong positive phases tend to be associationed with above-average temperatures in northern Europe, whilst negative phases of the NAO tend to be associated with below-average temperatures. There is more information available here.




Beginning in February-March, the 1984 drought hit the western parts of the UK hard and fast. No runoff deficits were evident in February, but by April, the drought had become well established with more than two-thirds of the UK being classified as in severe drought. Very quickly over the summer period, the drought spread to the east in the northern parts of the UK, but central and south-eastern England, with groundwater levels well within the normal seasonal range, remained largely unaffected.

As the summer progressed, the drought affected area remained largest in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Nationally aggregated daily outflows from the former fell below previous minima throughout late August – and have rarely been closely approached since. For the latter, estimated outflows from Northern Ireland – which are dominated by releases from Lough Neagh – remain the lowest for April-August in a series from 1981.

The maximum spatial extent of the drought was from April to August in 1984. After August, recovery began, but the drought remained prominent until October. The event was quite uniform in severity across the regions of Northern Ireland, East and West Scotland, North West England, South West England and Wales. The Severn Trent region also saw below normal flows in some catchments. Following a brief recovery in December 1984 to January 1985, deficits returned in the north and west over spring 1985, though these deficits were short-lived and were negated by July 1985.

Being a very short event, where severe deficits lasted only a few months, this event generally does not rank within the top ten events of 1891-2015 for the duration over a three month accumulation period. However, for three catchments in Northern Ireland, this event ranks fifth to seventh for this time period. It also ranks eighth for two catchments in north-west England and North Wales over a longer 12 month accumulation period. Despite its short duration, the 1984 event ranks highly in terms of the mean deficit over a three month accumulation period. This is particularly evident in West and East Scotland, North West England, South West England and Wales, where several catchments place this event within the top three for the period 1891-2015. For Western Scotland, and North-western England and Wales, in particular, nearly all catchments ranked this event as being within the top three. Similarly, the maximum intensity of this event also features with the top ten events for many catchments across Scotland, Wales and the West of England. Interestingly, though all catchments in Northern Ireland were classified as being in severe drought during this event, none of the catchments ranked this event within their top ten for intensity.

This drought event ranks highly in terms of mean deficit and maximum intensity, despite its short duration. This is likely due to the fact that the focal point of the event was in the upland regions of the UK where there is very little hydrological persistence. The rivers in these regions responded quickly to the significant deficits in rainfall, due to uncharacteristic easterly prevailing winds throughout the spring and summer months, but they also recovered quickly when a westerly airflow, accompanied by sustained heavy rainfall became re-established through September and October.



Generally, the 1984 drought had only a limited and short term impact on groundwater resources. It did not express itself in unusually low groundwater levels in the Chalk aquifer of eastern and southern UK. Groundwater levels were relatively low during the summer of 1984 in some of the observation boreholes in the Permo-Triassic Sandstones in the north-west of the UK, for example at Skirwith. However, due to the slowly responding nature of this aquifer, the worst effects of the relatively short meteorological drought were buffered.


Policy and Management

Thinking strategically about infrastructure for water resource management – debating the financing of the water industry in the UK. During the spring (March - May) of the year 1984, various aspects linked to the financial situation of water companies were discussed by Parliament (e.g. financial efficiency as well as expenditure targets; debt and revenue for each water authority; pricing and charges). This appeared to be triggered by concerns about the debt accumulated by Northumbria Water Authority between 1974 and 1984 and did not seem directly linked to the experience of a drought episode.

During May and June, the discussions revolved around the need to make water authorities more financially efficient. The same topic was again considered in July when the greater part of the country was experiencing drought. In the context of the drought, Parliament considered the need for infrastructural investment, which is seen as a way to prevent drought conditions in the future. The issue of drought is directly linked to the need for infrastructure investment and better governmental action. The available infrastructure is said to have proved inadequate for dealing with drought in the past too, e.g. during the 1976 Drought. The discussions about infrastructure investment and water authorities’ finances continue until December 1985.



“Yes, in the build-up to The Open, which is held in July every year, efforts were made obviously to keep the grass alive. That was really it, just to keep the grass alive. I mean, a links course for The Open should be fiery and fast, the grass should really be brown and fiery. But in 84, it was exceptional, when a ball bounced, there was a cloud of dust would rise into the air, but that’s the way the golfers like it. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not like an inland course that’s lush and the ball sinks in, the ball bounces and runs on the links course. That’s the ideal conditions. So, they weren’t too concerned, but they just wanted to keep the grass alive, so extra effort was put in an everything was concentrated on saving the water available for the old, but only on the areas that were at risk of going sparse and dying off, and the other thing that happened, pre-open, was because the bunker tops were so brown and little hillocks that really high spots were so brown, they don’t look good on camera, so St Andrew’s University science department made up a green dye harmless to the grass, which we used to spray on these high spots. Pale green and we just coloured them up and blended them in a bit better. Yes.” HDOHPS0001RPRB

Audio: Recollections from the 1984 Open


References and further publications