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A storm at sea

The Great Storm of 1987: 35th anniversary


The Great Storm of 1987 appeared out of the night sky in the early hours of an October morning. It wreaked havoc for a few hours and, by dawn, it was all but gone.

It seems almost unimaginable that, 35 years on, this could happen again. But according to Michael Fish, who is as synonymous with the event as the thousands of uprooted trees left in the wake of the storm, it could. Despite what we have learnt from the event, and with all the modern weather-predicting devices at our disposal, it could still catch us out...

Michael Fish is innocent. Okay!

Michael Fish will always be remembered by what most people perceive as a significant gaff when he told viewers not to worry about reports of an approaching hurricane during the lunchtime news on the 15th of October 1987.

Technically speaking, he was right; the Great Storm of 1987 was not a hurricane, it was an extratropical cyclone, but that is not even the point. The storm Michael Fish was talking about (on the lunchtime news) was an entirely different storm system over the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean. And that storm did not even reach the British Isles, just as he had predicted, alongside his prediction that there would be strong wind and rain. Also, it would have been virtually impossible with the technology available to meteorologists in 1987 to know that the Great Storm was approaching. So, let’s give Michael a break, eh?

So, what did happen, then?

At about the time that Michael Fish was making history on the BBC (while talking about the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean) a depression was developing over the Bay of Biscay that allowed tropical and polar air to collide, creating an area of very low-pressure. But there was another phenomenon at play that made the event dangerously significant, and something unknown to scientists at that time, a sting jet.

What is a Sting Jet?

In short, it is when cold dry air from high in the atmosphere descends into a weather system (in this instance an already intense storm) to create a narrow band of extremely high, hurricane-like, wind. The sting jet was shaped like the tail of a scorpion, hence its dramatic nickname, with the cyclone effect located at the curl of the tail. However, the real danger was that it was only a few metres off the ground, capable of destroying anything in its path.

The term ‘jet sting’ only came about as a result of scientists studying the cause of the 1987 storm, which should give some idea of how freakish it was. Scientists believe the Great Storm of 1703, which killed more than 8000 people may have been as a result of a sting jet as well, either way, the 1987 storm was the worst since 1703.

When did the storm gather pace?

The afternoon winds following Michael Fish's forecast were mild, but by 10.30 that evening, Force 10 wind warnings were coming from the English Channel. A few hours later, in the early hours of October 16th, they went to 11. At about this time the Met Office contacted the Ministry of Defence to warn of the storm’s severity and the potential need for military assistance. It was a prudent move however shortly after, the storm smashed into the UK.

Which area was hit the hardest?

The storm was at its most violent in the small hours. Most people in the UK went to bed and simply woke up the following morning to find uprooted trees in places they had not been when they switched off the light the previous evening. Still, it is unknown how many of the residents of Shoreham-by-Sea in Sussex had a good night. At 3.10 am, the coastal town recorded the highest gust of the storm at 115mph. Gusts of 80mph were recorded for three to four consecutive hours in southeast England, unsurprisingly this was where the greatest damage occurred, and even London saw wind speeds of up to 95 mph between 3 am and 4 am.

Amid the carnage, 18 people died (some sources put this figure at 19) but these were not necessarily confined to the southeast of the country. Some perished at sea while others were struck by falling chimneys and trees. Outside of the UK, four people died in France. The tragedy of those that perished, the death toll would have been far greater if the storm had happened in regular, daylight, hours.

How much damage was there?

A channel ferry was blown ashore near Folkstone, the roof came off the Palace of Westminster, and 200 chimney stacks in the city of London collapsed, but it was the trees that took the brunt of the damage.

The tree loss was exacerbated by unseasonably damp soil, tree roots were not rooted into the earth, and an estimated 15 million trees were felled, including 4000 in the New Forest and, famously, six out of seven oaks in Sevenoaks. Millions were left without power, some for days, and the clean-up operation went on for months. The cost to the UK was put at about £6 billion in today’s money.

Michael Fish (again)

As the story goes, a lady in Wales had phoned the BBC to warn the Met Office of a hurricane. In reality, a colleague of Michael Fish had called his mother in Wales on a BBC phone to tell her to not worry about hurricanes when flying to Florida. Michael Fish used the incident as the basis for an introduction to the weather report and so an urban legend was born.

He went on to say he regularly gets stopped by ladies to say that they were responsible for making an entirely fabricated phone call.