In southern England, 15 million trees were lost, among
them many valuable specimens. Trees blocked roads and railways,
and brought down electricity and telephone lines. Hundreds
of thousands of homes in England remained without power
for over 24 hours.
Falling trees and masonry damaged or destroyed buildings
and cars. Numerous small boats were wrecked or blown
away. A ship capsized at Dover, and a Channel ferry
was driven ashore near Folkestone.
The storm killed 18 people in England and at least
four more in France. The death toll might have been
far greater had the storm struck in the daytime.
Storm damaged trees (photo © K Herrington)
Four or five days before the storm struck, forecasters
predicted severe weather on the following Thursday
or Friday. By mid-week, however, guidance from weather
prediction models was somewhat equivocal. Instead
of stormy weather over a considerable part of the
UK, the models suggested that severe weather would
reach no farther north than the English Channel and
coastal parts of southern England.
During the afternoon of 15 October, winds were very
light over most parts of the UK. The pressure gradient
was slack. A depression was drifting slowly northwards
over the North Sea off eastern Scotland. A col lay
over England, Wales and Ireland. Over the Bay of Biscay,
a depression was developing.
The first gale warnings for sea areas in the English
Channel were issued at 0630 UTC on 15 October and
were followed, four hours later, by warnings of severe
At 1200 UTC on 15 October, the depression that originated
in the Bay of Biscay was centred near 46° N, 9° W
and its depth was 970 mb. By 1800 UTC, it had moved
north-east to about 47° N, 6° W, and deepened to 964
At 2235 UTC, winds of Force 10 were forecast. By
midnight, the depression was over the western English
Channel, and its central pressure was 953 mb. At 0135
on 16 October, warnings of Force 11 were issued. The
depression now moved rapidly north-east, filling a
little as it did, reaching the Humber estuary at about
0530 UTC, by which time its central pressure was 959
mb. Dramatic increases in temperature were associated
with the passage of the storm's warm front.
Maximum gusts (knots) during the 1987 storm
It's clear that for sea areas, warnings of severe
weather were both timely and adequate. Forecasts for
land areas, however, left much to be desired.
During the evening of 15 October, radio and TV forecasts
mentioned strong winds but indicated that heavy rain
would be the main feature, rather than strong wind.
By the time most people went to bed, exceptionally
strong winds hadn't been mentioned in national radio
and TV weather broadcasts.
Warnings of severe weather had been issued, however,
to various agencies and emergency authorities, including
the London Fire Brigade. Perhaps the most important
warning was issued by the Met Office to the Ministry
of Defence at 0135 UTC, 16 October. It warned that
the anticipated consequences of the storm were such
that civil authorities might need to call on assistance
from the military.
In south-east England, where the greatest damage
occurred, gusts of 70 knots or more were recorded
continually for three or four consecutive hours.
During this time, the wind veered from southerly
to south-westerly. To the north-west of this region,
there were two maxima in gust speeds, separated by
a period of lower wind speeds. During the first period,
the wind direction was southerly. During the latter,
it was south-westerly. Damage patterns in south-east
England suggested that whirlwinds accompanied the
storm. Local variations in the nature and extent of
destruction were considerable.
|How the storm measured up
Comparisons of the October 1987 storm with previous
severe storms were inevitable. Even the oldest residents
of the worst affected areas couldn't recall winds
so strong, or destruction on so great a scale.
- The highest wind speed reported was an estimated
119 knots (61 m/s) in a gust soon after midnight
at Quimper coastguard station on the coast of Brittany
(48° 02' N 4° 44' W)
- The highest measured wind speed was a gust of 117
knots (60 m/s) at 0030 UTC at Pointe du Roc (48° 51'
N, 1° 37' W) near Granville, Normandy
- The strongest gust over the UK was 100 knots at
Shoreham on the Sussex coast at 0310 UTC, and gusts
of more than 90 knots were recorded at several other
- Even well inland, gusts exceeded 80 knots: 82
knots was recorded at London Weather Centre at 0250
UTC, and 86 knots at Gatwick Airport at 0430 UTC
(the authorities closed the airport)
Once-in-50-year gust speed (metres/sec) over open
level country. Data up to 1971.
Once-in-50-year hourly mean wind speed (metres/sec)
over open level country. Data up to 1971.
TV weather presenter Michael Fish will long be remembered
for telling viewers, the evening before the storm
struck, that there would be no hurricane. But he was
unfortunate. Fish was referring to a tropical cyclone
over the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean
that day. This storm, he said, would not reach the
British Isles - and it didn't.
It's worthwhile to consider whether or not the storm
was, in any sense, a hurricane - the description applied
to it by so many people.
In the Beaufort scale of wind force, Hurricane Force
(Force 12) is defined as a wind of 64 knots or more,
sustained over a period of at least 10 minutes. Gusts,
which are comparatively short-lived (but cause much
of the destruction) are not taken into account. By
this definition, Hurricane Force winds occurred locally
but were not widespread.
The highest hourly-mean speed recorded in the UK
was 75 knots, at the Royal Sovereign Lighthouse. Winds
reached Force 11 (56-63 knots) in many coastal regions
of south-east England. Inland, however, their strength
was considerably less. At the London Weather Centre,
for example, the mean wind speed did not exceed 44
knots (Force 9). At Gatwick Airport, it never exceeded
34 knots (Force 8).
The Great Storm of 1987 did not originate in the tropics
and was not, by any definition, a hurricane - but it was
South-east of a line extending from Southampton through
north London to Great Yarmouth, gust speeds and mean
wind speeds were as great as those which can be expected
to recur, on average, no more frequently than once
in 200 years. So, comparison with the great storm
of 1703 was justified. The storm of 1987 was remarkable
for its ferocity, and affected much the same area
of the UK as its 1703 counterpart.
Northern Scotland is considerably closer to the main
storm tracks of the Atlantic than south-east England,
so storms as severe as October 1987 can be expected
far more frequently than once in 200 years. Over the
Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland, winds as strong as
those which blew across south-east England in October
1987 can be expected once every 30 to 40 years.
4: Example of
station temperature graph changes
The 1987 storm was also remarkable for the temperature
changes that accompanied it. In a five-hour period,
increases of more than 6 °C per hour were recorded
at many places south of a line from Dorset to Norfolk.
Especially rapid and large was the increase at South
Farnborough in Hampshire, where the temperature rose
from 8.5 °C to 17.6 °C in 20 minutes. The return frequency
for a temperature increase this rapid is, like the
return frequency for the wind strengths that occurred
in the storm, about once in 200 years. Across southern
England, rapid increases in temperature were followed
by sharp decreases.
5: Example of
station temperature changes
Ahead of the storm, barometric pressure had fallen
rapidly, but neither the magnitude of the fall nor
the rate of decrease was remarkable. The subsequent
rise in pressure was, however, exceptional. Over much
of southern England, increases of more than 8 mb per
hour were recorded, with the most rapid at Hurn in
Hampshire, where pressure rose 12.2 mb in one hour.
The greatest rise over three hours occurred at the
Portland Royal Naval Air Station in Dorset, where,
between 0300 and 0600 UTC, the rise was 25.5 mb. This
was, by some margin, the greatest change in pressure
- either upwards or downwards - ever recorded in three
hours anywhere in the British Isles. At many places
in southern England, the pressure rose more than 20
mb in three hours. The return period for such an occurrence
is, again, roughly once in 200 years.
6: Surface pressure,
wind flow and fronts, 0000 to 0600
Journalists, looking for a sensational story, accused
the Met Office of failing to forecast the storm correctly.
Repeatedly, they returned to the statement by Michael
Fish that there would be no hurricane - which there
hadn't been. And it mattered not that Met Office forecasters
had, for several days, been warning of severe weather.
The Met Office had performed no worse than any of
its European counterparts when faced with this exceptional
However, good was to come of this situation. Based
on the findings of an internal Met Office enquiry,
scrutinised by two independent assessors, various
improvements were made. For example, observational
coverage of the atmosphere over the ocean to the south
and west of the UK was improved by increasing the
quality and quantity of observations from ships, aircraft,
buoys and satellites, while refinements were made
to the computer models used in forecasting.
In an ideal world, storms like 1703 and 1987 will
never take us by surprise. In the real world, however,
we must remember that caprices of the atmosphere may
occur at any time.
We must remember, too, that the mathematical models
used in numerical weather forecasting, though remarkably
successful, can never fully represent the complexity
of the real atmosphere. And complete observational
coverage of the atmosphere over the oceans west and
south of the British Isles will probably never be
Extreme weather events, as the storm of 1987 showed,
will always be very difficult to forecast.