Gallery: Were the forecasters caught on the hop back in 1987?

THE prowess of the weather forecasters – or alleged lack of it – was a hot talking point after the events of autumn 1987.

At the eye of the storm was Michael Fish, who gave advice on the BBC that week not to worry, because there wasn’t a hurricane on the way. The Met Office says on its website that, four or five days before the storm hit, forecasters had predicted severe weather. As it got closer, however, “weather prediction models started to give a less clear picture. Instead of stormy weather over a considerable part of the UK, the models suggested severe weather would pass to the south of England – only skimming the south coast”.

Winds were very light on the Thursday afternoon, with little hint of what was to come. “However, over the Bay of Biscay, a depression was developing. The first gale warnings for sea areas in the English Channel were issued at 6.30 am on 15 October and were followed, four hours later, by warnings of severe gales,” says the Met Office. At 10.35 pm Force 10 winds were forecast. At 1.35 am on the Friday, warnings of Force 11 were given. The depression moved rapidly north-east, reaching the Humber estuary at about 5.30 am. “During the evening of 15 October, radio and TV forecasts mentioned strong winds but indicated 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, 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.”

The Met Office exonerates Michael Fish, who told viewers there would be no hurricane.

“He was unlucky, however, as he was talking about a different storm system 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 was the rapidly deepening depression from the Bay of Biscay which struck.

Most Read

“This storm wasn’t officially a hurricane as it did not originate in the tropics – but it was certainly exceptional. 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 a lot of destruction), are not taken into account. By this definition, Hurricane Force winds occurred locally but were not widespread.” The Met Office said the powerful winds of 25 years ago were a once-in-200-years event. “This storm was compared with one in 1703, also known as a ‘great storm’, and this could be justified. The storm of 1987 was remarkable for its ferocity, and affected much the same area of the UK as its 1703 counterpart.”

The 1703 event on November 26 and 27 was Britain’s worst hurricane-force disaster and is said to have killed about 8,000 people.

The Met Office defends itself against accusations it failed to predict the storm, pointing out that for several days its forecasters had warned of severe weather. “The Met Office had performed no worse than any other European forecasters when faced with this exceptional weather event.”

However, there was an internal inquiry, scrutinised by two independent assessors, and 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.”

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter