The Great Storm of 1987

If you asked me where I was last Tuesday, I'd have to think about it for awhile. However, I can tell you where I was 20 years ago today: the Bayswater section of London where I was living at the time. I remember that because today and tomorrow mark the 20th anniversary of England's Great Storm of 1987.

At the time, the storm was considered the worst to hit England since 1703, devastated forests throughout southern England, killed 18 people, and caused over £1 billion in damages. I remember walking around London after the storm hit and being awed by the damage done. I had already seen the aftermath of hurricanes along the US Gulf coast, but this left a greater impression, probably since it was totally unexpected.

The UK Met Office had forecast heavy rains for the overnight of 15 - 16 October, but not the intensely strong winds. Weather forecasters thought a less powerful storm would stay south in the English Channel or hit northern France.

What made the forecasting mistake worse in the public eye was that BBC weatherman Michael Fish said on his 2130 forecast, "Earlier on today apparently a woman rang the BBC and said she'd heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well if you are watching don't worry, there isn't." Fish was actually talking about a different storm, but everyone assumed he was talking about the one that indeed did hit England.

In a Guardian newspaper story, the Met Office's chief meteorologist, Ewen McCallum, said that an analysis of the 1987 storm using modern equipment showed that a column of air descending from 14,000 feet - called a sting jet - caused the intense weather. The sting jet was only 50km wide, too small to be picked up by the weather models in 1987, which only had a resolution of 75km. Today, it would be picked up, since said the current resolution of their weather models is 4km, and, if given the funding, 1 km by 2011.

However, as the recent hurricane Humberto that hit the US Gulf coast shows, that even fine grained weather models may not guarantee that you'll predict everything. Being humble in the face of Mother Nature, no matter how powerful your think your computer models are, is a prudent policy.

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