British Isles: North Atlantic Drift & Jet Stream

Instructor: Matthew Bergstresser

Matthew has a Master of Arts degree in Physics Education. He has taught high school chemistry and physics for 14 years.

The British Isles are a collection of two large islands, and a lot of smaller ones in the North Atlantic. This lesson deals with the climate of the British Isles, and why it is so different compared to the climate of other areas at the same latitude.

The Moors

If you like Halloween, and creepy stories, you probably loved Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel 'The Hound of the Baskervilles. If you haven't read it yet, you might get the chance when your literature teacher assigns it to you to read. The setting for the story is mainly in the boggy, often foggy swampland of Devon, England, which is in the southwest part of the country.

It is late autumn, and the sun is getting lower and lower in the sky as winter approaches. It is often foggy at night, and out of the shadows comes the unearthly hound looking for prey.

British moor at night

Imagine you are out on the moor at night, and you hear a loud howl coming from behind that tree! Would you investigate? Not me, I would rather investigate what causes the special climate in the British Isles giving the setting for this story.

Factors Influencing the Climate in the British Isles


When you think of winter weather in Canada, what comes to mind? Snow, and more snow. Canada has hosted the winter Olympic games twice compared to England's zero times. Canada and England are roughly at the same latitude (50o to 60o North from the equator), but England is significantly warmer in the winter compared to Canada, therefore it doesn't get as much snow.

The red line shows the latitude comparison of Canada and the British Isles

Just like with the unusual happenings on the moors in the story, there must be something going on with the climate here too. Let's go through all of the factors that come together to create the relatively mild climate of the British Isles.


Altitude is the height of the land above sea level. Quebec, Canada is roughly between 980 - 2000 feet above sea level while the altitude in the British Isles ranges from just above sea level to over 3000 feet! Temperature drops with increasing altitude, which explains why the higher regions in the British Isles experience more snow in the winter. If altitude was the only factor in determining winter weather, the British Isles would have more extreme winters than eastern Canada.

Air, Ocean, and Mountains

The mountains in the British Isles do play a significant role in the climate there, and it has to do with wind, the ocean, and mountains. Prevailing winds are the typical winds for an area. The prevailing winds for the British Isles come from the southwest after passing over the Atlantic Ocean. This air is generally warm, and moist because of the North Atlantic Drift. It is a mass of warm water that has been brought northward from lower latitudes closer to the equator.

The British Isles are islands in the Atlantic Ocean so their western coasts get the full effect of weather patterns that form over the North Atlantic. The relief of the land is the shape of its terrain. There are mountain ranges in both Ireland and England that force this warm, moist air up, and over the mountain. Think of a skateboarder going up a ramp. The air cools in the higher altitude, and the water vapor condenses (turns from a gas to a liquid) to form rain. It rains on the windward side (facing the uplifting air) of the mountain, and then the dry air mass moves over the leeward side of the mountain. The leeward side is in the rain shadow because it typically only gets dry air.

Jet Stream

The jet stream is a mass of quickly moving air at around 30,000 feet above sea level. It moves from west to east in a wave-like pattern, and can bring strong winds and storms to the British Isles.

The Polar Jet is what affects the British Isles

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