Factfile: The 1987 Great Storm

Find out a range of key facts about the 'Great Storm' of 1987

Weather statistics

  • Mean (average) wind speeds of 50 mph were observed across South East England.
  • A maximum gust of 115 mph was observed at Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex.
  • Gusts of 94 mph were observed in London between 3 am and 4 am.
  • The Royal Sovereign lightship on the south coast recorded a mean (average) wind speed of 86 mph.
  • Temperatures rose by up to 10 ºC for a short period overnight as the storm pushed north.
  • A pressure rise of more than 20 mb was observed in just three hours as the low moved away to the north.
  • Storm centre pressure fell to 951 mb over the English Channel.

Fig 1. Graphic showing areas with strengths of maximum gusts. Fig 1. Graphic showing areas with strengths of maximum gusts.

Forecast

  • TV weather forecaster Michael Fish said on the October 15 lunchtime broadcast: "...earlier on today apparently a woman rang the BBC and said she'd heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well if you are watching don't worry, there isn't..."
  • Five days before: Forecasters predict severe weather on the following Thursday or Friday.
  • A few days before: Computer models suggest severe weather would only hit the English Channel and coastal parts of southern England.
  • Afternoon 15 October: Winds very light over most parts of the UK. Gale warning issued for the English Channel.
  • Late evening 15 October: Gales in the channel forecast to be Force 10. Over land the emphasis of the last evening TV forecast is on very heavy rain.
  • Early hours 16 October: Storm progresses, starts to turn more northwest towards South East England. Warnings of severe weather issued to various agencies and emergency authorities, including the London Fire Brigade and Ministry of Defence.

Impacts

  • 18 people lost their lives in Britain, four in France.
  • Devastation costs are reported to be more than one billion pounds.
  • An estimated 15 million trees were lost.
  • Thousands of homes were without power for several days.
  • Wreckage blocked roads and railways.
  • A ship capsized at Dover, and a Channel ferry was driven ashore near Folkestone.
  • It was the worst storm since 1703 and was analysed as being a one in 200 year storm for southern Britain.
  • A public enquiry was announced shortly after the storm and an internal enquiry was conducted by the Met Office.
  • Government funds the Met Office to set up the National Severe Weather Warning Service.

Improving forecasts

  • There have been massive improvements in the capacity of supercomputers to analyse the increasing amount of available observations, for example from satellites. These advances are similar to those in home computing in the same period.
    • The resolution of our computer models has increased from 150 km to 25 km on a global scale and from 80 km to 12 km regionally. This has allowed us to provide more detailed and timely forecasts than we could previously.
    • In recent years we have been able to run models at a resolution of 1.5 km across the UK. This allows us to identify details of major storms, effects of hills, mountains and coastlines, on aspects such as intense rainfall, snow and local winds.
    • Additionally, unlike 1987, we can now run ensemble forecasts to let us understand the degree of confidence in our forecasts - both globally and regionally. This allows us to communicate a range of possible outcomes and understand the risk of any severe weather occurring. We are now able to run ensemble of 2.2 km resolution for the UK to provide really detailed probability forecasts.
  • The main forecasting models have improved to give a more realistic simulation (better physics) of how the atmosphere works.
  • The Met Office produced a re-run of the storm, using current technology and short-lead times, which successfully forecast the intensity of the storm.
  • We have seen significant increase in the use of satellite information over the past 25 years. This has lead to a step change in weather forecasting accuracy. A recent study from the Met Office has shown that observations from satellites contribute 65% to the performance of numerical weather prediction (NWP) forecasts.
  • With experience, forecasters themselves have improved their understanding of what satellite pictures show in term of cloud heads and Sting Jets (hooked cloud heads associated with very strong winds), which help determine the characteristics of individual storms.
  • As a result of the storm both the Met Office and our television presenters are better at telling the public about the risk posed by severe weather.

Taking action

  • Met Office works closely with a range of organisations to help them manage the impacts.
  • Local level forecasts are essential for Response Services (contingency and emergency) to take meaningful action to save lives and property in advance of predicted high impact weather.
  • Our weather products help contingency planners prepare for and respond to emergencies.
  • We work with contingency planners to help them assess and manage operational risk; limit the impacts of an emergency; ensure an appropriate and effective response level; help operations continue both during and after the emergency.
  • Legislation supporting the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 states that Category 1 responders must have regard to the Met Office's duty to warn the public, and provide information and advice, if an emergency is likely to occur or has taken place.

Last updated: 25 July 2013