giant storm

Twenty-six years ago today, on October 15, 1987, Britain and France were struck by a freakishly powerful windstorm that shredded trees, crushed cars, annihilated power lines, and left millions of Britons across London and most of southeastern England without power, some for two weeks. The Great Storm also killed 18 people and cost insurance companies over £2 billion, making it the single costliest weather event in British history. Nothing like the Great Storm of 1987 had been seen in almost 300 years, and even then–the storm of 1703–has been disputed by historians.

The thing about the Great Storm is that it seems to have caught weather forecasters largely flat-footed. Severe weather in Britain is monitored by the Met (Meteorological) Office, a government agency roughly analogous to the National Weather Service in the United States. On the afternoon of October 15 the Met Office was predicting that, although there was an unusually large barometric depression over the Channel, high winds wouldn’t touch most of England. The truly horrific winds began not long after, and by the middle of the night the Met Office was warning municipal governments across Britain that damage might be severe enough that they would need to call on the assistance of the military to clear streets and keep order.

Then there was Michael Fish. A Met Office forecaster, he made this epic blooper during the BBC weather report on October 15. It was less his specific words than his flippant tone that had people complacently dismissing the coming storm:

Fish, who still reports weather in British media, has disputed the clip, claiming it was taken out of context and he was talking about something else–a hurricane in Florida. Well, whatever.

Certainly the Great Storm was an environmental disaster. More trees were destroyed in that one event than in decades of normal weather, and many of the downed trees were historic; for instance, six of the famous trees of Sevenoaks were destroyed. The downing of fences in one specific place in England evidently resulted in the escape of a number of wild boar, who have since fanned out through the countryside and given birth to various generations of feral boars in the years since 1987. People don’t realize the effects a storm like this can have.

Kidding about Michael Fish aside, the Great Storm of 1987 should remind us that meteorology is far from an exact science. In fact, it’s closer to necromancy and witch doctoring than most people think. The atmosphere is often unpredictable and irrational. We’d do well to keep that in mind.

The photo at the top of this article is by John Kerstholt, licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.