The Great Storm of 15/16 October 1987

Pretty big storm was it then? Tell me more.
The storm of the 15/16 October 1987 is probably Englandís most famous (and infamous!!) weather event of the 20th century. With gusts between 70 and 100 knots, this was south-eastern Englandís worst storm since the Great Storm of 1703 and as if this wasnít enough the storm also killed 18 people and an estimated 15 million trees were lost.

Why all the fuss? It's not like it's never wet and windy in England is it?
Not like this it isnít! However, the October 1987 storm is more famous because of the public perception that it was less than adequately forecast and for being synonymous with BBC weatherman Michael Fish than for the damage it caused.

Oh yes, Iíve heard about this. Didnít he say there wouldnít be a hurricane and then there was one.
Well, thatís how many people remember the forecasts before the storm, but it's not quite the whole story. In a broadcast prior to the storm Michael Fish, responding to a viewerís query, assured viewers that a hurricane which had just affected parts of the USA would not affect Britain (it didnít). He then added, ďbut having said that, actually the weather will become rather windyĒ. Which, of course, it did.

It seems that in the aftermath of the storm some people, including part of the British media, conveniently chose to ignore the fact that Michael Fish had mentioned that it would become windy over at least part of the UK and instead chose to focus on the part of the broadcast where he mentioned the hurricane and made a bit of a scapegoat out of the chap, thus making him synonymous with the October 1987 storm.

Even so, wasnít 'rather windy' a bit of an understatement?
It was really. Whilst the forecasts for the British coastal waters werenít too bad, over land the strength of the winds were really not anticipated until quite late on, so based on the information to hand Ďrather windyí probably seemed an appropriate thing to say at the time.

Bear in mind that in the days leading up to the storm all the information available to forecasters suggested that the zone of strongest winds would just miss the English mainland. Also, the days before the storm had been rather wet and some places were close to flooding. Consequently the emphasis of the forecasts were on rain and the strong possibility of flooding rather than the wind.

Track of the October 1987 storm

Left: Figure One: The track of the Great Storm 15-17th October 1987

So, meteorologically what happened?
Weatherwise October 1987 started off fine and dry but quickly became unsettled and wet. In the days leading up to the storm an area of low pressure lingered to the west of Ireland and its associated frontal waves crossed Britain from time to time producing spells of wet weather.

It seems that interaction between one such frontal wave near north-western Spain, an area of low pressure (also near north-western Spain), warm air flowing eastwards out of Hurricane Floyd (located just east of the USA), warmer than normal sea temperatures in the Bay of Biscay and cold air moving south from Iceland towards Iberia allowed the low near north-western Spain to deepen rapidly to form the 'Great Storm' and then move (very quickly for a low of this size) north-eastwards to the northern North Sea via north-western France and England during the 15 and 16th October 1987 (see figure one). The cold air moving south from Iceland towards Iberia and the warm air flowing out of Hurricane Floyd near across the Atlantic Ocean into Iberia created an exceptionally large temperature gradient over the Atlantic Ocean. When the low and frontal wave near north-western Spain met this temperature gradient they were able to deepen and develop rapidly and move quickly north-eastwards wreaking havoc on the way. Warmer than normal sea temperatures in the Bay of Boscay will have given the storm extra energy and moisture.

Highest recorded gusts during the October 1987 storm

Left: Figure Two: Highest recorded gusts (in knots) during the Great Storm 15/16 October 1987

So, what was the weather like during the storm then? Pretty windy Iíll wager?
Obviously the main feature of the storm was the high winds. Wind speeds over southern England began to rise after the passage of the stormís warm front during the second half of the evening of the 15th (see figure one) and were gusting to 70 knots along the south coast of England by 0000 GMT. During the early hours of the 16th the stormís cold front passed and it was during the few hours immediatly after the passage of the cold front that most places had their windiest weather - most areas affected by the storm recorded their highest winds between 0200 and 0600 GMT. Winds went on to gradually ease between 0600 and 0900 GMT.

South-eastern England was worst affected by the high winds and with a gust of 100 knots Shoreham (on the south coast in Sussex) recorded England's highest gust during the storm. Further along the coast Langdon Bay (near Dover) experienced gusts of 90-95 knots, as did central London. Some places in south-eastern England registered gusts of 70 kts for 3-4 hours in a row. Figure two shows where the highest gusts were.

The wind direction during the storm was also of interest; in south-eastern England, where the most damage occurred, the strongest winds were southerly. In other parts of the country affected by the storm, East Anglia for example, there were two distinct peaks in the wind one from the south roughly between 0200 and 0400 GMT and another from the south-west approximately between 0500 and 0800 GMT. This in itself was quite unusual because the strongest winds over the UK usually come from directions between west and south-west rather than from the south to south-west.

Also striking were the high temperatures observed during the storm. The storm brought with it some very mild air over southern and eastern England, where many places registered temperatures between 14C and 17C during the night of the 15/16 October. There were also some spectacular temperature rises during the storm. For instance, the temperature at Heathrow Airport was 8C at 1800 GMT on the 15th and 17C at around 2100 GMT. At one point the temperature here rose by about 7C in just one hour, the largest one hour temperature rise recorded here in at least 37 years.

Finally, there were some record breaking pressure rises after the storm. As the storm moved away north-east during the early hours of the 16th pressure rose very quickly over southern England. Typically pressure rose by between 19 and 25mb in 3 hours, and this is the largest 3 hour pressure change on record in the UK.

Quite a lot of damage then?
Oh yes. Most of the damage occurred south of a line joining Southampton with London and Norwich. This roughly coincides with the region where mean winds of 40 knots or more and gusts of 80 knots or more were recorded. 18 people were killed during the storm, half of them in the far south-east of England. Had this storm occurred during daylight hours rather than overnight the death toll would undoubtedly have been higher. An estimated 15 million trees were lost. This figure would probably have been lower if trees hadnít still been in leaf and the ground hadnít already been saturated by rain earlier in the previous few days. One in six householders in south-eastern England put in insurance claims after the storm and damages cost around £1500 million.

Lucky this sort of thing doesnít happen very often then?
Too right. This sort of thing hardly ever happens in south-eastern England. South and east of a line joining the coast of East Anglia with London and Southampton both mean winds and gusts with return periods of 200 years occurred!

Further, the strongest winds over the UK usually come from directions between west and south-west rather than south to south-west as occurred during the storm. If you also take into account the fact that October isnít one of the windiest months of the year it becomes clear that the chances of a storm of this magnitude in this area in October is really quite small.

Still, powerful storms do happen over south-eastern England every now and again; during the last 800 or so years comparable storms affected the region on the 7/8th December 1703, 28th February 1662 and 23rd January 1362.

The storm didnít just affect England did it though? What about the Netherlands and France for example?
South-eastern England wasn't alone in being affected by the Great Storm. Parts of northern and north-western France reported stronger gusts than those in England, and in fact the highest gust recorded during the storm was 117 knots at Pointe du Raz in Normandy. Further east gusts of 60-70 knots were reported in parts of Belgium.

Synoptic chart 12:00 GMT October 16 1987The storm also brought some very windy weather to the Netherlands (see figures two and three). In coastal areas south to south-westerly winds reached 34-40 knots between 2100 GMT on the 15th and 1500 GMT on the 16th and peaked at 48-55 knots between 0600 GMT and 1200 GMT on the 16th. During the night of the 15/16th gusts were reaching 40-50 knots but then late in the night/early in the morning both mean winds and gusts over the Netherlands increased. Gusts between 60-70 knots were registered in south-western coastal areas, whilst in some north-western coastal parts winds gusted to 70-80 knots. IJmuiden repored the strongest gust (80 knots), whilst Den Helder, Warmehuizen and Terschelling werenít too far behind with 72-73 knots. Hoek van Holland and Huizen, meanwhile, recorded gusts of around 66 knots. Elsewhere gusts of 45-60 knots were widely reported.

As well as bringing the Netherlands some very windy weather, the storm also brought with it some rather warm air; during the night temperatures gradually rose and in some places the night of the 15/16th was the mildest night of the month. By sunrise on the 16th temperatures were around 18 or 19C in most places and at around 20C Eindhoven, Rotterdam and Valkenburg were the Ďhot-spotsí. Most of the Netherlands went on to record their maximum temperature on the 16th at the height of the storm! Places roughly to the south and west of a line joining Venlo, Utrecht and Den Helder recorded their maximum temperature for the 16th between 0500 and 0700 GMT, whilst elsewhere the maximum temperature was reached between 0700 and 0900 GMT. Incredibly some places in the province of South Holland (in the western Netherlands - Rotterdam is the main city in this province) recorded their highest temperature of the whole month during the storm!! Meanwhile, the troughs near France in figure three went on to produce some thundery showers over the Netherlands later in the day on the 16th.

Above: Figure Three: The seemingly rather unlikely synoptic situation in which some parts of the Netherlands recorded their highest temperature in the whole of October 1987!

Stormenkalender Chronologisch overzicht van alle stormen langs de Nederlandse kust voor het tijdvak 1964-1990 KNMI 1990
Surrey in the Hurricane, Mark Davison and Ian Currie 1988
The Journal of Meteorology, December 1987 and May/June 1988
The Meteorological Magazine, April 1988
Weather, March 1988
Weatherwise, Philip Eden 1995
Weerspiegel, December 1987

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Dan Suri, 16 March 2001