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Since records began

11/08/2013

Storm damage

How was it for you? The Great Storm of 2013. St Jude’s Storm. The storm to end all storms. Of course, for those of us living in London and the south east it was obviously worse than for the rest of you. Much worse. The picture above shows the scene of devastation that greeted me on my way into work in Chelsea on the Monday morning of the storm. Utter carnage.

Weather forecasters had seen it coming for a while. As I travelled back to London on the Sunday evening from a weekend up north, there was an air of increasing foreboding as the train heaved on towards St Pancras. Passengers swapped tales of rail services being cancelled and pondered their routes to work the following morning. Sensing the worst, a woman across the aisle from me rang her husband to check that their tortoise had been moved indoors.

In northern Britain people must have been quietly chuckling to themselves as to the newsworthiness of all of this. Fierce storms regularly lash the northern half of the British Isles all year round with very little media attention. It reminded me of the floods that affected much of South Yorkshire and the north Midlands in the summer of 2007 when my twenty mile drive home from work that usually took about forty minutes became an epic five hour odyssey as a day long deluge left many roads impassable.

At one point, uncertain as to whether I was going to make it home that night as all routes between Sheffield and north Derbyshire seemed to be blocked, I popped into a shop for some supplies to get me through the night; a toothbrush, some toothpaste, a cheese and onion butty (no mayo) and a couple of cans. Meanwhile commentary on the tennis at Wimbledon burbled away on the radio. Hey, don’t worry about the floods folks, Tim Henman’s two sets to one up against someone I’ve never heard of. And the sun’s out in London.

Sheffield flood 2

As with any spell of bad weather the Great Storm gave us all the chance to moan a bit. You know the sort of thing; bit of wind and rain and the whole of the country grinds to a halt. This wouldn’t happen anywhere else, blah, blah, blah. Anyone familiar with the problems that many European countries experienced last winter will know that this is nonsense. But I suspect there’s a therapeutic element to some of this. We all like a good moan now and again, don’t we. And our wonderfully changeable temperate marine climate certainly gives us plenty of opportunity.

To be honest, I’m a bit of a weather bore. I’ve always been interested in it. Almost to the extent where I tend to get a bit twitchy if I miss the forecast at the end of the television news and end up having to look on teletext to check what’s going to happen tomorrow. At school, in geography lessons, I developed a fondness for the intricate details and language of weather maps; warm and cold fronts, high and low pressure, isobars, the Beaufort scale and cirrus and cumulonimbus clouds. I was so into it that I wrote a letter to the Met Office asking about careers in meteorology. A few weeks later a rather tired looking orange and grey Met Office leaflet plopped through the letterbox accompanied by a letter explaining that I’d need a science degree to make it in the world of meteorology. Bugger that I thought. Science wasn’t really my thing.

I’m not sure when it happened exactly but at some point in the early 1980s weather forecasting became a bit more glamorous. There was a distinct move away from besuited, bespectacled blokes placing stickers onto a map of the British Isles. In their place we welcomed Francis Wilson’s knitwear and Wincey Willis’s hair and some fancy new graphics. Elsewhere the Today newspaper started devoting a whole page, in full colour, to the weather forecast rather than a couple of paragraphs in the corner of page six.

Weather forecast 2

Until the nineteenth century weather just happened. Lives were lost at sea as ships sailed into storms and didn’t sail out again. People left their homes in the morning unsure of the appropriate clobber to wear. Mind you there’s a fair proportion of folk around today who I’m convinced never hear or see a weather forecast. The number of people sweating on the tube, during a very mild October, dressed in branded gear more suited to a polar expedition baffled me. It’s as if people think “ah, it’s October, I must get my winter togs out”.

The Mancunian resident John Dalton was one of the first meteorologists and used homemade instruments to start making weather observations in the late eighteenth century. He collected a large amount of weather-related data and helped to turn meteorology into a science. Later, Robert Fitzroy, inspired by a desire to protect life and property, began weather forecasting and the first forecast appeared in The Times newspaper in 1861. Fans of the shipping forecast will be familiar with the name Fitzroy as the area previously known as Finisterre, off the north west coast of Spain, was renamed Fitzroy in 2002. Sadly Robert Fitzroy allegedly committed suicide in 1865 frustrated that his forecasts were unable to prevent ships from sinking at sea.

Grim up north

It wasn’t until 1922 that the BBC’s first weather forecast, prepared by the Met Office, was broadcast on the radio and from March 1923 became a daily service. Nowadays there is a range of high-tech apparatus at the forecaster’s command; satellites, radar and computer simulations and weather forecasts are, in the main, very accurate. Weather observation has become so sophisticated that we’re regularly bombarded with an array of Top Trump style weather statistics. The summer of 2012 was apparently the wettest “since records began” and the dullest since 1980. But strangely not as cool as the summer of 2011. March 2013 was the coldest since 1962. And this summer was the warmest, driest and sunniest since 2006.

Weather forecasting has certainly come a long way in the last century and a half. The fact that we can now spot a powerful storm in the making, several days in advance, on the other side of the Atlantic means that, in Europe, we can make preparations that prevent accidents from happening and perhaps save lives. It’s what Robert Fitzroy strived for. Meanwhile on the other side of the world, the category five Typhoon Haiyan currently battering the Philippines provides a reminder that in countries where infrastructure is less developed, great storms can be brutally destructive. Weather is a natural phenomenon but the wreckage it can cause is often man-made. Sadly, the news from the Philippines is about much more than a few tables and chairs being blown over.

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