When Science Goes Wrong: Twelve Tales From the Dark Side of Discovery - Simon LeVay (2008)

METEOROLOGY: All Quiet on the Western Front

‘EARLIER ON TODAY, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she’d heard that there’s a hurricane on the way,’ said Britain’s best-known weatherman, Michael Fish, on an October evening in 1987. ‘Well, if you’re watching, don’t worry – there isn’t.’ Then the hurricane struck. Eighteen people died, and losses mounted into the billions.

That, at least, is a synopsis of events as they have engraved themselves in the memory of Britons who survived the Great Storm of October 15 and 16, 1987. Fish himself sees it all a bit differently. He was talking about the weather in America. The videotape was doctored. The French let him down. His forecast wasn’t wrong. He wasn’t even on duty that evening. And there was no hurricane.

Untangling what actually transpired before and during the storm presents quite a challenge. For one thing, meteorology is an arcane science. Take the term ‘baroclinic instability,’ a key concept in the analysis of the 1987 storm. A baroclinic instability is the condition when isobaric-isopycnal solenoids are nonzero. Got it? I think not.

Also, as befits an arcane science, its practitioners stick together like glue. The debacle of October 16 – if it was a debacle – was followed by an orgy of collective amnesia in which any hint of scientific failure – if there was a failure – was masked, denied, or erased from the record. It wasn’t till more than 20 years later that a trio of (non-British) meteorologists broke ranks and laid out how the forecast should have been done.

One thing is clear: there was a hurricane – in America. Its name was Hurricane Floyd, but it shouldn’t be confused with the monster of that name which devastated the Carolinas 12 years later. (That one led to the permanent retirement of ‘Floyd’ from the christening book of tropical storms.) By comparison, the Floyd of October 1987 was a timid thing – in fact it carried official hurricane status for only a few hours on the night of Monday, October 12, as it traversed the Florida Keys. Then it weakened to a tropical storm, crossed the Bahamas without causing unusually severe damage, and petered out.

Floyd didn’t make it as far as Europe, but its influence did. By October 14, energy propagating downstream from the remnants of the hurricane had helped establish a deep east-west trough of low pressure in the north-eastern Atlantic, off the coast of Spain. To the northwest of the trough, frigid air descended from the arctic; to the south, warm, moist air was being carried north-eastward over Spain. The resulting steep north-south gradient in temperature was the ultimate energy source for the storm, making it an ‘extra-tropical cyclone’. (Depending on their location, storms of this type may be referred to more specifically as ‘mid-latitude cyclones’ or ‘European wind storms’.) A true hurricane, in contrast, is born in tropical waters and feeds off the vertical temperature gradient between the warm ocean surface and the cold air aloft.

I discussed the events of 1987 with Thomas Jung, a German research meteorologist based at the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) in Reading, Berkshire. Jung and his colleagues have re-created, within the safe confines of a modern supercomputer, the ferocious conditions of the Great Storm.

‘When you have these temperature gradients, the wind increases with height,’ Jung said. ‘This is the so-called geostrophic wind, which produces a very large shear, and a baroclinic instability develops, and then you have development of strong storms.’ Explaining this a little: a geostrophic wind is a wind that blows in a direction parallel with the isobars – the lines of equal pressure that are the main element of weather charts. You might think the wind would turn left, cross lots of isobars, and fill up the low-pressure trough. Indeed, the pressure gradient is trying to make it do exactly that, but it doesn’t succeed because another, equally strong, force is trying to make the wind turn right. That other force is the Coriolis force that results from the Earth’s rotation. The two forces balance out and so the wind simply charges straight ahead along the isobars. The wind’s speed is proportional to the pressure gradient: that is, it gets faster as the isobars become more closely spaced.

Near the Earth’s surface, however, the wind is slowed by friction and turbulence. This causes the Coriolis force (which is proportional to speed) to become weaker, so the wind in the lower parts of the atmosphere does turn somewhat to the left, crosses isobars, and runs partway down the pressure gradient. Thus there is a shearing action between the slower, leftward-turning wind at lower levels and the faster, straight-ahead wind at higher altitude. The shearing action generates an unstable situation called a baroclinic instability, which involves a complex interaction between pressure, density and temperature at different locations and altitudes; I confess that I don’t understand the details, but the outcome is a vortex – a counter-clockwise spinning action that winds up low-pressure troughs into the high-energy systems called extra-tropical cyclones. These are often visible as comma-shaped cloud systems in satellite images of the Earth’s middle latitudes.

Extra-tropical cyclones are good things, because they very efficiently convey heat and moisture from the tropics toward the poles, thus making living conditions more tolerable for everyone. Still, the fact that they originate in instabilities is a problem, especially for weather forecasters. An instability is a knife-edge-like situation. ‘If there is a small perturbation, it grows and grows and grows,’ said Jung. ‘The problem is that if this happens with the atmosphere itself, it is likely also to happen with any error in your forecast.’

People think of the task of weather forecasting as getting from the current conditions to the conditions tomorrow or the day after. But that actually omits a crucial first step, which is getting from the observational data to the current conditions. Forecasters call this step producing an ‘analysis’ – a mapping of pressure, temperature, humidity, wind strength and so forth – for the region of interest at the time the observations are made. It may be presented as a two-dimensional chart such as one sees on television, but the vertical dimension of the atmosphere is equally important. Why it’s called an analysis, I don’t know – it’s really more of a synthesis.

The analysis is always inaccurate to some degree. That’s because the observations themselves are not perfectly accurate, and because they don’t provide complete coverage. The latter problem is particularly severe for a country like Britain, most of whose weather comes off the empty expanses of the Atlantic Ocean. Up until the 1970s, Britain and other countries maintained a fleet of about ten weather ships that were stationed at various positions in the North Atlantic. Between bouts of seasickness, the crew would release balloons that ascended to the stratosphere, radioing back the atmosphere’s vital signs as they climbed. The ships gradually fell victim to fiscal belt-tightening, however, as well as to the belief that satellite-based meteorology was the wave of the future. That was a mistake, according to Jung, because satellites have a hard time measuring conditions at different vertical levels in the atmosphere. At any rate, by the time of the 1987 storm weather ships were history. Surface observations were restricted to those provided by a few automated buoys and by whatever commercial ships happened to be in the area of interest. These buoys and ships didn’t release weather balloons. What’s more, some of the commercial ships were so notorious for providing inaccurate data that they were put on an official blacklist of untrustworthy sources. Some of the missing data was supplied by commercial aircraft, but most of the transatlantic jetliners travelled to the north of the Bay of Biscay – the birthplace of many European storms, including the one of October 1987.

As if these problems weren’t bad enough, another factor may have made the data-acquisition process even worse than usual during the days leading up to the 1987 storm. Michael Fish told me that the meteorologists in France were on strike, and as a result they failed to send weather data from their country to the Meteorological Office (Met Office) in Bracknell near London, which was then the nerve centre of British weather forecasting.

Bill Giles, who was Fish’s boss at the BBC Weather Centre, confirmed this account to me. There is no mention of any such strike in the news reports that I read, however, nor in the official report that was published in the aftermath of the storm, so I sent an inquiry about it to Météo France. I got a reply from Jacques Siméon, who was head of the forecasting division there until 1987. He told me that a one-day strike of the entire French Civil Service was called for October 15, but that few people in Météo France heeded the call, and as a result there was no effect on forecasting or the transmission of data.

Having developed a representation of the current conditions – an analysis – forecasters have to predict how things will change in the future. By 1987, the Met Office had largely consigned this task to computers. In fact, the Bracknell centre already possessed a ‘supercomputer’ – a CDC Cyber 205 – capable of executing 200 million calculations per second. Still, this is only about one-millionth the speed of the fastest present-day supercomputers. Even at the time, it was outmoded in comparison to the Cray supercomputers being operated by the French meteorological service and by the ECMWF in Reading.

The Bracknell forecasters used two different models to transform the analysis into a prediction of future weather. To simplify the computing process, both models represented the atmosphere as a three-dimensional grid of boxes, each of which was assigned a single value of temperature, pressure and so on. In one model, the boxes were about 60 kilometres on a side. This so-called ‘fine-mesh model’ was restricted to the United Kingdom and surrounding areas. The other, coarser model used boxes of about 120 kilometres on a side. This ‘UK global model’, as it was called, covered the entire Earth. Both models divided the vertical dimension of the atmosphere into about 20 levels. (By comparison, the most detailed present-day models use boxes as small as four kilometres on a side, and they divide the atmosphere into about 70 levels.)

Applying the equations of fluid dynamics to the data in each box and its neighbours, the supercomputer changed the data in each box to represent the passage of some small increment in time. This was done repeatedly until the computer had arrived at the time of interest – say, 12 or 24 hours after the starting time. The result was a data set that human forecasters could use to draw charts and predict future conditions.

Several days before the storm struck, it was already clear that bad weather was heading toward Britain and France. Starting on Sunday, October 11, television and radio forecasts warned that wet and stormy conditions were likely toward the end of the week. This was not good news; Britons had experienced exceptional amounts of rain over the previous few weeks, with flooding in low-lying areas throughout southern England. By Wednesday, the actual weather over England still gave no hint of trouble to come, but the warnings handed out by the Met Office had grown more urgent. The lunchtime BBC TV forecast on that day included mention of a low-pressure system that ‘is going to deepen like mad and head up and give us an angry spell of weather, wet and windy’ on Thursday and Friday.

Even while the weatherman was speaking, however, things were starting to go wrong back at the weather operations centre in Bracknell. When the fine-mesh model was applied to the data for noon on Wednesday, the result was – no storm at all! A broad area of low pressure would cross the country and might drop some rain, but winds would be light. The global model did still show a storm, with a track crossing southern England, but the low-pressure centre was not deep enough to signify that exceptionally strong winds were on the way.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, conditions were rapidly deteriorating. By Wednesday night, the trough of low pressure in the Bay of Biscay had developed into a classic extra-tropical cyclone, and it was racing toward north-western France and the western approaches to the English Channel. Its central depression was deepening rapidly, even explosively, and the polar air that had been heading south was whipping around the depression in a counter clockwise direction and heading back toward the northeast. Ahead of it was a great mass of warm, subtropical air that had been bitten off and now formed an isolated, onrushing lobe of heat and moisture. Thus there were two fronts heading north-eastward: a warm front marking the leading edge of the subtropical air and, a couple of hundred miles behind it, a cold front marking the leading edge of the pursuing arctic air. (An animation of the advancing weather system is available online – see the list of sources for this chapter.)

At about 2am on Thursday, the Met Office’s Cyber 205 began chewing on the data that described the weather situation at midnight, using the fine-mesh model. After an hour or so, it spat out the result: yes, the depression would be deep enough to cause stormy conditions after all, but the centre would track up the English Channel, perhaps grazing the very tip of Kent in southeast England, on its way to the North Sea and the Low Countries. This seemed like good news for Britain, because it meant that the right-hand side of the depression, where the strong winds were likely to occur, would affect the English Channel and northern France, sparing the British mainland.

This tendency for the strongest winds to occur to the right of the centre of an extra-tropical cyclone is a phenomenon that is also seen with hurricanes. It is caused by the fact that, on the right side, the speed of the entire advancing system adds to the speed of the cyclonic circulation, whereas on the left side it subtracts from that speed. This effect is not very pronounced with hurricanes, whose eyes typically progress quite slowly – perhaps 10 mph. But extra-tropical cyclones move much faster – the centre of the cyclone that caused the Great October Storm raced across Britain at more than 50 mph. This caused a very large difference between wind speeds on the left and right sides of the storm track: to the left, gentle breezes wafted from the northeast; to the right, hurricane-force gales blew from the southwest.

Having finished its work on the fine-mesh model, the Met Office’s computer turned its attention to the global model. Because it was now about 3am, some more recent data could be fed into the model that had not been available for the running of the fine-mesh model. Whether on account of the new data, or for some other reason, the output of the global model was quite different from that of the fine-mesh model. It predicted that the centre of the depression would veer left, make landfall in southwest England about midnight, and cross the country well north of London during the small hours of Friday morning. What was more, the model predicted that the pressure at the centre of the depression would be 965 millibars. This was 48 millibars below mean atmospheric pressure and, in combination with the predicted steep pressure gradient to the south of the advancing centre, it would be enough to generate very strong winds in the region of England to the southeast of the storm track.

Thus, when the Bracknell forecasting team for Thursday, October 15 came on duty, they were faced with a quandary: their two computer models predicted utterly different conditions for the following night. Either southeast England would experience a major windstorm, or it wouldn’t.

This was a situation where the task of weather forecasting was suddenly thrown back into the laps of human beings, and specifically into the lap of the senior forecaster on duty that day. (The position is now called chief forecaster.) I haven’t been able to find out that person’s name. Ewen McCallum, a senior forecaster who was present in the operations room on that day (but not on duty), wouldn’t tell me; others I spoke with professed not to know, and the reports issued after the storm didn’t identify him. Evidently, there has been some desire to protect the identity of the person who (in terms of his official status at least) was most responsible for the erroneous forecast. As McCallum commented, ‘it was a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I kind of thing.’

McCallum did give me one insight. The then head of the Central Forecasting Office (and thus the boss of the senior forecasters) was a man by the name of Martin Morris. During the previous week, McCallum told me, Morris had been sceptical of the idea that a storm was on the way, in spite of the models that indicated that it was. ‘He stressed to me that he was worried that we were perhaps overdoing things [in our forecasts],’ McCallum said. On Thursday, Morris got involved in discussions with the forecasting team. ‘I have no idea how much pressure he put on the senior forecaster, but I certainly think there were discussions taking place,’ said McCallum. This seemed to be a broad hint that Morris urged the senior forecaster to opt for a milder forecast than he might otherwise have done, but I haven’t been able to confirm this story from other sources.

In any event, the forecast that went out to the media on Thursday morning was a compromise between the results of the two models. It described the depression as likely to move up the Channel and across southeast England, with very high winds in the Channel and windy, but not exceptionally violent, conditions in the south-eastern counties. It also spoke of the likelihood of considerable rain.

It was on the basis of this guidance that Michael Fish issued his infamous ‘no hurricane’ forecast. Although many sources, including the Met Office’s own website, describe Fish’s forecast as having been delivered on Thursday evening, it was actually given at 1.25pm as part of the BBC’s lunchtime television news. This lunchtime broadcast was not very widely watched. Thus, when Fish told me that he was ‘not even on duty at the time’, he presumably meant that he didn’t give the more popular evening forecast – it was his boss, Bill Giles, who handled that one. Still, it was the crucial two sentences from Fish’s broadcast, endlessly replayed during the days and weeks after the storm, that became emblematic for the Met Office’s failure to properly predict the storm.

I was curious to know whether Fish regarded his job as requiring him to help develop weather forecasts, or whether it was more a matter of presenting forecasts generated at Bracknell. He was emphatic that his role included actual forecasting, and that all the BBC weather presenters were trained Met Office scientists. Knowing where I was calling from, he couldn’t resist a dig at his US counterparts. ‘The situation in America is pretty appalling,’ he said. ‘The weather should not be entertainment; it’s a life and death kind of thing.’ Bill Giles made the same point: the BBC presenters were independent forecasters, he said. He, too, bemoaned the trend, especially evident in the United States, toward weather forecasts as entertainment. ‘Television wants nubile young ladies,’ he said, ‘and meteorology likes fat old grey men with experience.’

Fish’s and Giles’s disparagement of the US television forecasters may not be entirely fair. A good number of American weather presenters, probably including some of the nubile ones, have undergraduate or advanced degrees in meteorology or related disciplines, according to the American Meteorological Society. Fish himself learned his trade while serving tea to the weather forecasters at Gatwick Airport, starting in 1962. He doesn’t have any college degree, although in a 2004 interview posted on the website of London’s City University he was quoted as saying that he earned a degree in physics at that institution in 1968.*

Still, the BBC Weather Centre has always had the reputation of being a scientific organisation, not just a group of presenters parroting forecasts prepared at Met Office headquarters.

Given that Fish mentioned the entertainment issue, it may be appropriate to say a word about his physical appearance at the time of his famous broadcast. A staple of TV forecasting since 1974, Fish was a balding, moustachioed 43-year-old, who liked to wear thick, dark-rimmed glasses and wool sweaters under tartan jackets. He sported a collection of ties with fish motifs and (if the Sunday Herald is to be believed) his underwear was also personalised, this time with weather-chart symbols. Fish had a love-it-or-loathe-it kind of style; fittingly, he was once voted Best Dressed Man and Worst Dressed Man on television in the same year.

Of course, I wanted to know the story behind the woman who called in to ask whether there was a hurricane on the way. This is a question that Fish has been asked many times before. In 2004, when he was interviewed for an article on the BBC Weather Centre’s website, he answered it as follows: ‘Nobody called in... My remarks referred to Florida and were a link to a news story about devastation in the Caribbean that had just been broadcast. The phone call was a member of staff reassuring his mother just before she set off there on holiday.’

Fish gave me pretty much the same account, and he went on to bemoan how the often-shown video clip had been edited to make him seem as if he was talking about the weather in England. ‘If you had the complete clip there it would be painfully obvious it was nothing to do with the situation [in England],’ he said. ‘The rest of the broadcast went on to say, “Batten down the hatches, there’s some extremely stormy weather on the way.” Which to me is a very good forecast.’

This account is at least partially incorrect, according to a study of the television and radio forecasts before the storm that was published in 1988 as part of the report of the official investigation. Fish didn’t say ‘Batten down the hatches...’ on that broadcast at all. He uttered that remark, or something like it, in the course of a different forecast that he gave 30 minutes later. This was a forecast for the European satellite television Superchannel. His exact words were, ‘It’s a case of batten down the hatches, I think, for some parts of Europe; some very, very stormy weather on the way indeed.’ In other words, Fish was saying that exceptional winds would occur over continental Europe – something that all the models were agreed on – and not that they would affect England. Later in that broadcast, he specified France and the Low Countries as the areas at risk.

On the BBC broadcast, Fish did say that it would get very windy, but he gave less emphasis to the wind than to the prospect for rain, in line with the existing concern about flooding. The charts that accompanied the television forecasts that day indicated sustained wind speeds of up to 50 mph, but only for the English Channel and North Sea, not for land areas.

What about the woman who called in? Was she really the mother of one of his colleagues who was planning a trip to Florida? Not at all, according to the Daily Mail. In the aftermath of the storm, that newspaper posted a monetary reward for the name of the woman involved. The answer soon came in: it was a Mrs Anita Hart from Pinner in northwest London.

I tracked down Mrs Hart and spoke with her by telephone in 2006. ‘Oh no, no!’ she cried in mock despair when I told her why I was calling. ‘This has been haunting us for the last 20 years.’

She told me that she saw the Mail’s reward offer but didn’t respond to it because she valued her privacy. ‘But we were shopped by one of our son’s friends. To get the reward he called the newspaper and identified us.’

Mrs. Hart’s story started a few days before the storm. She and her husband were planning a trip to Wales with their caravan. Their son Gaon was then studying meteorology at Manchester University. ‘We were in the habit, if we wanted to go away for the weekend – we would phone him and ask what the weather was going to be like. On this particular occasion he said, “Don’t laugh, but I think there’s going to be a hurricane.” He had tapped into the French computers, because our computers were not up to it.’

This was on Monday. By Wednesday there were still no storm clouds on the horizon, so Anita called the BBC Weather Centre and asked whether there was indeed going to be a hurricane as she’d been warned. A man whom she took to be Michael Fish replied, ‘No, we don’t get hurricanes in England.’

When I told Mrs. Hart of Fish’s explanation for his remarks on the broadcast – namely that he was talking about Florida, and that the video clip had been edited to make it seem as if he was referring to England – she laughed again. ‘That’s absolute nonsense. That’s not true at all. Obviously his story changed.’

Although Fish’s version of events is difficult to square with other accounts, it has established itself as authentic in many quarters, including the BBC Weather Centre’s website, the Wikipedia article on the storm, and so on. Thus many sources portray Fish as the innocent victim of a hatchet job by the media, when in reality he himself handed them the hatchet.

Fish’s broadcast did not endear him to his superiors. In talking with me, Bill Giles described Fish’s comments as ‘stupid’ and ‘silly’. Ewen McCallum seconded the ‘stupid’ and added ‘dumb’ for good measure. The official report published in the following year described Fish’s comments as ‘particularly unfortunate’. It wasn’t that Fish was single-handedly responsible for the bungled forecast, but that by issuing such an unqualified denial of the danger, he made any kind of defence of the Met Office’s performance impossible. ‘The Fish thing was very important because that was the damning piece of evidence,’ said McCallum. ‘That was the “No further questions, Your Honour.”’

Soon after Fish delivered his broadcast, the Met Office’s Cyber 205 embarked on yet another round of number-crunching, using the weather data for noon. This time, the results of the fine-mesh and global models were in reasonable agreement, and they also agreed with the ‘compromise’ forecast that had been issued earlier. This may have caused the Bracknell forecasters who had settled on the earlier compromise to congratulate one another on their good judgment, but if so their satisfaction was short-lived.

At any rate, they issued a forecast that was similar to the earlier one, and consequently Bill Giles’s presentation on the Thursday evening news was similar to the one given by Michael Fish at lunchtime – minus the hurricane story, of course. Again, the emphasis was on the prospect for heavy rain, with some mention of strong winds in south-eastern coastal areas. Thus most Britons went to bed without an inkling of the disaster that was about to strike. If they took any precautions, it was to station their wellies by their front doors, not to batten down any hatches.

Around the time of Giles’s evening presentation, the centre of the oncoming depression lay in the western approaches to the English Channel. It still seemed as if the Met Office’s forecast – a track up the channel and across the south-easternmost portion of England – was a good possibility. Between 7pm and midnight, however, the depression began to veer onto a more northerly path, and the depth of the depression intensified. By midnight, the depression was nearing the coast of Devon, and the sea-level atmospheric pressure at its centre had decreased to about 953 millibars. This corresponded to the pressure that (on a normal day) would be encountered at an altitude of about 1,500ft. It was at least 12 millibars below any estimate offered by computer models during the run-up to the storm. (By comparison, the pressure in the eye of Hurricane Floyd – the infamous Floyd – dropped to 921 millibars.)

With the extreme deepening of the depression, the winds picked up to very high speeds. The highest winds were far above the land surface and thus were never actually measured. From the spacing of the isobars to the south of the storm track, however, it can be calculated that ‘geostrophic’ winds at altitude would have blown at about 300 knots (345mph). The actual high-altitude winds would have been blowing at somewhat less than geostrophic speeds, because they would have been slowed by centrifugal forces as they followed the curved path of the isobars. Still, they must have been blowing at speeds far above the threshold for hurricane status (65 knots, or 75mph) or even the threshold for the most violent category 5 hurricanes (135 knots, or 155mph). Of course, as Michael Fish stated, this did not mean that the storm was in fact a hurricane.

At the Earth’s surface, winds were much slower, but they were still exceptionally strong. In the English Channel to the south of the depression, and along the adjoining English coast, winds reached 50 knots around midnight, making it a ‘severe gale’ or ‘storm’ on the Beaufort scale of wind strengths. A gust of 95 knots (109mph) was recorded on the French coast at about the same time.

During the small hours of Friday morning (October 16) the centre of the depression began to track across southern England, well to the north of its forecasted path. The depression lay over Bristol around 3am, Birmingham around 4am, Nottingham around 5am and Hull around 6am. These cities experienced only gentle winds, or even complete calm, as the depression passed over them, but it was a different story to the south. Steady winds of 60 knots or more were widely reported, and gusts reached much higher speeds. The strongest gust recorded on the English mainland was 106 knots (121mph) at Gorleston on the coast of Norfolk. Even in London, a gust of 94 knots (108mph) was recorded at the British Telecom tower at 2.40am, shortly before London’s electricity supply failed and the anemometer stopped recording. This was the highest wind speed ever recorded in the capital. The highest wind speed measured anywhere during the storm was a 117 knot (134mph) gust recorded on the coast of Normandy shortly after midnight.

Besides the wind and rain, southeast England experienced remarkable changes in temperature as the warm front and the pursuing cold front passed overhead. Shortly before midnight at the Met Office’s station in South Farnborough, southwest of London, the temperature rose by 9°C (16°F) in 20 minutes, and fell by the same amount a few hours later. Rapid pressure changes also occurred, particularly as the tail end of the depression swept across England: rises in pressure by as much as 12 millibars in one hour were recorded toward the end of the night. Both the temperature and the pressure changes were unprecedented in terms of their rapidity.

The human impact of the storm was felt earliest in the Channel. A catamaran carrying six people was put into difficulties off the coast of Dorset: the Weymouth rescue lifeboat set out in mountainous seas and, with support from a Royal Navy destroyer, was able to save the crew. A coaster, or small cargo ship, was damaged off the Isle of Wight and required rescue by two lifeboats. Farther to the east, it was even worse. A bulk carrier capsized and sank outside Dover harbour, taking the lives of two crew members. A cross-Channel freight ferry, the Hengist, ran aground near Folkestone, and the crew had to be brought to shore by an antiquated rope-and-harness contraption known as a breeches buoy. (The ship was saved and now plies the calmer waters of the Aegean under a different name.) Two passenger ferries, with 400 passengers aboard, were unable to enter port and had to ride out the storm at sea. A lifeboat set out from Sheerness, on the north coast of Kent, to save a fishing boat that was running aground; it rescued the crew but then was itself driven aground by a violent gust and had to remain there for the rest of the night.

Onshore, 16 people died. The most frequent cause of death was treefalls, which killed nine people in England. One of these, a homeless man, was killed directly by a tree that fell in a London park. Four people – including two firemen returning from an emergency call – were killed by trees that fell on their vehicles, and three others died when their vehicles collided with fallen trees or while swerving to avoid one. A woman in Chatham, Kent, died when a tree crashed through the roof of her home.

Other deaths included three people who were killed by falling chimney stacks, a fisherman killed by a flying beach hut and a motorcyclist who was blown into a barrier by a violent gust. Besides the British victims, four people died in France.

The main physical damage was to trees: an estimated 15 million of them were destroyed over a span of about six hours. Two factors conspired to maximise the damage. First, most deciduous trees were still in leaf, thus giving the wind an easy purchase. Second, the ground was sodden from weeks of rain, making the trees much less securely rooted than usual. Not even those trees whose roots held fast were safe, however: many of them succumbed to trunk breakage, a mode of failure that greatly reduced their salvage value.

In falling, the trees wreaked havoc. Many fell on their owners’ homes. Here is an excerpt from an account written by a meteorologist; HD Lawes:

We gave up trying to sleep and I made a cup of tea... Up to a point, one feels that your own home is the safest place to be but I had never seen any storm like this and I was beginning to feel uneasy... Another particularly strong gust started up, there was a huge rumbling crash and a rushing noise. The house shook, the ceiling cracked and outside masonry was falling. We realised that the cedar tree had fallen and rushed upstairs to where baby Sam had been asleep. There was a gaping hole in the wall of his bedroom and the ceiling light was blowing in the wind. Luckily Sam was still there in his cot with only a few pieces of plaster and brick on him. He was crying lustily, which was reassuring, and Sue plucked him from the cot. We rushed downstairs and out of the front door, pausing only to rescue the cat, my pipe and tobacco. Outside we had to clamber through a morass of branches and foliage to where a neighbour was holding a torch and we gratefully accepted their hospitality.

Trees fell on roads and rail tracks in unimaginable numbers, making them impassable. Among the millions of Britons who found themselves trapped in their homes or unable to get to work were Anita Hart and her husband; at least their son’s hurricane warning had caused them to cancel their holiday. ‘Our caravan would have blown over,’ Anita said. Indeed, many caravan parks near the coast were scenes of complete devastation.

Trees also fell on power lines, causing outages. In fact, by 3.30am nearly the entire southeast of England, including most of London, had been plunged into darkness that lasted until dawn. With nowhere to send their electricity, power stations had to shut down abruptly. Many communications links were broken, either by trees falling on lines or by the collapse of broadcasting towers.

Although the immediate harm of the treefalls lay in the damage they caused, it was the sheer loss of trees that most affected Britons in the longer run. South-eastern England had not experienced such a violent windstorm in nearly three centuries; thus many trees had had time to grow to maturity and beyond without ever being severely tested by the elements. Majestic, ancient trees were a beloved and seemingly permanent feature of the English landscape, but that changed in the Great October Storm. Among the places hard hit were the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in West London, Britain’s premier arboretum and botanical garden. Five hundred trees – about one-third of the garden’s stock – were destroyed, and an equal number were severely damaged. Among the trees lost were many rare specimens, such as a cherry-bark elm (Ulmus villosa) – a species that is being harvested out of existence in its native Kashmir. Even greater damage occurred at the Royal Botanical Gardens’ second site at Wakehurst Place in Sussex, where more than half the trees were downed. Other arboretums, parks, private gardens, and woodlands suffered major losses. There was also severe damage to commercial forests: losses equalled about two years of lumber production for the entire United Kingdom.

Treefalls were the most prevalent type of damage done by the storm, but homes also suffered damage from chimney falls, stripping of roofs and sidings, and the like. One in six homeowners in southeast England filed insurance claims after the storm, and total insured losses (for Britain alone) amounted to £1.4 billion.

For meteorologists, in particular, it was a memorable night. Some were at their homes and lived through experiences like the one described by HD Lawes earlier. One meteorologist lamented that he slept soundly through the weather event of the century. Others were on duty. Those at Bracknell had to cope with a power outage that halted the Cyber 205 in its tracks around 4am. Although any forecast for mainland Britain was now superfluous, the computer was also programmed to provide individualised, automated forecasts for the oil rigs in the North Sea. Thus, as the storm roared toward the rigs, the night staff had to hand-process, type and fax the forecasts – an operation that took many hours. (One rig narrowly escaped disaster as a ship that had broken away from its moorings bore down on it: the ship was pulled away just in time.)

Most of the Bracknell day staff failed to show up, so the night staff had to continue on duty. One person who did show up was Ewen McCallum. He had prepared a summary of the week’s forecasting for a conference that day. This task had been making him nervous all week because he was new on the job and also because there had been no weather of interest to talk about. When he arrived, his boss said, ‘Never mind the bloody conference, the shit has hit the fan and you’re going to be on in an hour to explain it!’

In fact, it soon became clear that the Met Office would have a lot of explaining to do, because the storm provided a field day for the media, especially the tabloid press.

WHY WEREN’T WE WARNED? screamed a headline. The Daily Express spoke of the ‘complete, shameful devastation of the credibility of those smugly useless TV weather people’. The more staid Independent spoke of the ‘dead silence from the frog-spawn watchers,’ and the Guardian described the Met Office staff as being ‘at the top of everyone’s list of duffers’. Many papers ran stories alleging that the French and Dutch meteorologists got the forecast right, unlike their incompetent British counterparts.

The quotes just mentioned are taken from an analysis of press responses published by Met Office staff. The analysis also mentioned that the Met Office received hundreds of letters from members of the public, the overwhelming majority of which expressed ‘support for the Office and appreciation of its services’. This is a bit too selfserving to believe, but Britons do have a reputation for siding with underdogs. At least one highly critical letter did arrive. It was from the BBC, which accused the Met Office of damaging the corporation’s reputation by failing to provide adequate warning of the storm.

Luckily for the Met Office, the Great Storm was quickly driven off front pages by an even less-heralded disaster. The following Monday was Black Monday, when stock markets collapsed around the world. The London market lost £50 billion in total share value on that day alone, and by the end of the month more than a quarter of the London market’s value had been wiped out. Many Britons whose homes had escaped the wrath of the storm now faced even worse damage to their bank accounts.

Of course, there had to be an investigation into what went wrong with the storm forecast, and who better to conduct it than the Met Office itself? In fact, the person who was given the main job of reviewing the forecasting process was the head of Central Forecasting, Martin Morris. Not surprisingly, the report laid the blame on a factor that no one at Bracknell could be held accountable for – the shortage of data from the Atlantic. In fact, about the only person who was singled out for criticism was Michael Fish (for his ‘particularly unfortunate’ ‘no hurricane’ comment), but even he wasn’t mentioned by name.

By way of bolstering their assertions about the cause of the erroneous forecast, the meteorologists described how they repeated the run of the fine-mesh model that had been most in error (the one that ran after midnight on October 15 and which influenced Fish’s ‘no hurricane’ forecast at lunchtime). This time they added the extra data that had not been available at the time. According to the report, the model now came up with a good prediction of the storm’s track and intensity. But the researchers admitted that they achieved success ‘by selecting values of the adjustable parameters’. When researchers model events that happened in the past, almost any model can be made to predict the actual outcome if one twiddles the knobs for long enough: this, it seems, is what the Bracknell group did.

Perhaps aware that an internal investigation might not satisfy the Met Office’s critics, the Secretary of State for Defence commissioned a review of the report’s findings by a well-known mathematician, Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, and a university-based meteorologist, Robert Pearce. These two were somewhat freer in their comments than were the authors of the internal report. They criticised the duty forecasters at Bracknell for following the computer models too closely and for failing to recognise a situation in which the models were likely to underestimate the strength of the winds. Swinnerton-Dyer and Pearce also compared the British Meteorological Office unfavourably with its French and Dutch counterparts. The French meteorologists, they said, were better educated and trained and had faster computers, and as a result did a better (though still imperfect) job of forecasting the October storm. (Jacques Siméon of Météo France confirmed this to me.) Some of Swinnerton-Dyer’s and Pearce’s recommendations were implemented: most notably, the Met Office was promised a new supercomputer, which was finally installed in 1991.

Thomas Jung, the ECMWF scientist who recently reanalysed the 1987 storm, believes that weaknesses in the Met Office’s computer models, and not problems with the data, were responsible for the erroneous forecasts. When Jung applied the ECMWF’s current model to the then-available data, he got an excellent prediction of the track and intensity of the storm for several days beforehand (though for some reason the prediction broke down during the final few hours before the storm). Jung tested the sensitivity of the model’s prediction to slight variations in the data, such as might be caused by erroneous or absent measurements at some locations. He did this by running the model 50 times, each time using slightly different starting conditions. The model robustly forecast the storm in spite of these perturbations. This kind of ‘ensemble forecasting’ is now standard practice, because it gives the forecasters a measure of how confident they can be in the model’s predictions. Thus it helps avoid situations like the one that occurred in 1987, when the models were in conflict but there was no objective way to assess which one was closest to the truth.

How did the Great October Storm measure up to other historic windstorms? The previous great storm of this type to strike southern England occurred on November 26 and 27, 1703. The effects were described by novelist Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) in his 1704 book The Storm, or a Collection of the Most Remarkable Casualties and Disasters which happen’d in the late Dreadful Tempest both by Sea and Land. The storm followed very much the same track across southern England as did its 1987 counterpart, and was probably similar in magnitude, but it did much greater damage on account of lower building standards in those times. Some details recorded by Defoe, such as the stripping of the lead roof of Westminster Abbey, suggest that winds may have been even stronger than in 1987. About 8,000 people died: these included the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who was ‘found with his brains dash’d out’, and 1,500 sailors who drowned when a dozen ships of Queen Anne’s navy were sunk.

Actually, windstorms nearly as powerful as the 1987 event cross the British Isles quite frequently, but they nearly always affect areas much farther to the north, such as the Hebrides Islands or the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. These attract very little attention because they cause next to no damage. ‘They just blow the sheep backward,’ as Bill Giles put it. Remarkably, another very powerful windstorm swept across England just 27 months after the Great October Storm. The storm of January 25, 1990 was accurately forecast, but because it struck during the day and affected a wider area, it caused more casualties: 39 people were killed in Britain and about 50 in Europe. Another three million trees were destroyed in the UK, adding to the toll of the 1987 storm.

The most disastrous European windstorm on record occurred on January 16, 1362. Known as the Grote Mandrenke or ‘Great Drowning’, it raised a wall of seawater that surged for miles across the coastal lands of the Netherlands and neighbouring countries. At least 25,000 people drowned and the coastline was permanently altered. The loss of life would doubtless have been much greater, had not the Black Death already killed off about half the population.

The Great October Storm is now receding into history. A generation of Britons has grown up with no memory of the storm itself, nor of how southern England looked before it struck. Perhaps an occasional young person may wonder why Ashdown Forest barely merits being called a forest, or why a town with but one ancient oak would call itself Sevenoaks, but that is it. And gradually, new trees are replacing the old.

Michael Fish retired in 2004. In spite of his performance on the day of the Great Storm, he received numerous honours for his long service to the BBC. These included an honorary degree from City University, which may have made up for his lack of an earned degree at that institution. The Queen named him a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. And after leaving government service he was free to capitalise financially on his fame – or notoriety. A few months later he was on the radio advertising central heating systems. ‘A woman rang to say there was a hurricane on the way,’ he told listeners. ‘Well, I couldn’t care less, because I have this new wonderfully efficient Worcester central heating boiler, so whatever happens I’ll be as warm as toast and have loads of hot water.’ In 2006, perhaps yearning to be back in front of the cameras, Fish tried out for ITV’s Celebrity X Factor. He failed to win a spot after Simon Cowell poured faint praise on his rendition of ‘Singing in the Rain.’