The Truth About The Hurricane - 16 October 2012

As anniversaries go 15/16 October is one I will never forget and one which will be engraved on my tombstone. All this despite the fact that Bill Giles was really the ‘guilty one’. Something he ‘forgot’ to admit until after his retirement! Yes, I did say “don’t worry a hurricane is not on the way” in an earlier broadcast but I was talking about Florida and I went on to say “batten down the hatches there’s some very windy weather on the way”. Clear enough, except for the press! Florida did not get a hurricane either, and our ‘storm’ wasn’t a hurricane.

Nevertheless 18 people were killed. 15 million trees were lost. Roads and railways were blocked. A ferry ran aground. Electricity and telephone services were cut off for days.

This severe storm originated as a small ‘kink’ on a cold front in the Bay of Biscay. At the time there was only limited weather information available from that area, partially due to industrial action in France and possibly due to an early warning of gales such that very few ships were in the area to make reports. The cold front was the boundary between warm air from Africa and Iberia and cold air from the Arctic. Where it meets is the ‘battle zone’and the warm air is forced to rise above the cold creating cloud, rain and a drop in pressure.

Early on the evening of October 15th the pressure in the kink suddenly dropped to 958mb and a full blown depression was born in a very short space of time. Why this explosive deepening took place is not fully understood but it is thought that a mixture of above average sea temperatures, warm humid air from Hurricane Floyd and cold air from Iceland released vast amounts of latent heat energy as the huge amount of water vapour condensed in turn driving the winds as the pressure dropped.

When the storm was first noticed it was predicted to track along the English Channel but the exceptional deepening caused it to veer north and eventually track over North Cornwall and Devon, the Midlands and out over the Wash. The strongest winds were in the south-eastern quadrant of the storm with 100kt gusts at Shoreham (West Sussex) and 117kt at Point du Roc in Normandy. Even London had a gust to 82kt (as my downed tress, smashed fences and bent television Ariel will affirm!!)

There was also an unprecedented rise in temperature. Increases of 6C were recorded in many places. South Farnborough in Hants saw a temperature rise of 8.5C to 17.6C in only 20 mins. After the storm the temperature fell rapidly but even more remarkable was the pressure increase. At Portland there was an increase of 25mb and nearby at Hurn a 12mb rise in less than an hour. The greatest changes ever recorded.

The Met Office was criticised for not forecasting the storm but did no worse than any other National Met Service. The storm was in fact well forecast earlier in the week but later computer forecasts tended to back off and changed the emphasis from wind to rain as it had been so wet up till then and many places were close to flooding. As it happened the soggy ground contributed greatly to the disaster. The trees were still in leaf and could not hold on with their roots in the soggy soil, coupled with the fact that they were attacked from a side that they were not naturally braced for.

We can count ourselves lucky that the storm occurred in the middle of the night or the loss of life would have been far greater.

This was a rare event. Nothing like it had occurred since 7/8th December 1703. There were also comparable storms on 28th February 1662 and 23rd January 1362. This was a one in 300 years event that shook everyone. But another severe storm swept across England on 25th January 1990 (the Burns Day Storm) - just 27 months later.

It’s an ill wind that blows no good.


Michael Fish