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Winter storms of 2013/2014

Coastline battered by storm

Through the winter of 2013/2014, the UK experienced spells of extreme weather as a succession of major winter storms brought widespread impacts to the UK.

The exceptional conditions were caused by a westerly Atlantic flow dominating the weather, bringing a series of deep low pressure systems across the UK and very little respite between the systems. At least 12 major winter storms affected the UK through the winter, in two spells from mid-December to early January, and again from late January to mid-February. This made it the stormiest period of weather that the UK had seen for at least 20 years.

Our trusted forecasts enabled contingency planners, emergency responders and the general public prepare for and limit some of the impacts of the severe weather during this period.

Initially most of the weather impacts related to the strong winds, first across the north of the UK and then affecting exposed areas further south. However, as rain continued to accumulate across the country, the focus of concern shifted from strong winds to rainfall totals. Large parts of the UK were affected by flooding, with swathes of the Somerset Levels remaining underwater for much of the season, and large sections of the River Thames also affected by the flood waters.

The severe conditions broke a number of weather records, and it became the wettest winter in the UK since records began.

Weather conditions and impacts

December 2013

The storm of 5 December saw Scotland's rail network shut down, 100,000 homes without power, flight cancellations at Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, fallen trees, traffic accidents and two fatalities. During the morning of the 5th, concerns increased regarding coastal flooding mainly affecting eastern England due to a storm surge. Several hundred homes were flooded on parts of the east coast of England (for example at Boston, Lincolnshire) and many thousands of residents were evacuated from vulnerable areas. At Hemsby (Norfolk) cliff erosion resulted in several properties collapsing into the sea, while in North Wales, Rhyl (Denbighshire) was badly affected by coastal flooding. However, hundreds of thousands of properties were protected by flood defences and the Thames Barrier was closed to protect London.

The storm of 18 to 19 December again resulted in travel disruption and several thousand homes without power across western Scotland and Northern Ireland. There were also reports of some fallen trees, minor structural damage and localised flooding.

The storm of 23 to 24 December caused widespread flooding across southern England, stretching through Dorset, Hampshire, Surrey and Kent, and extensive power cuts, with around 50,000 homes remaining without power through the Christmas period. In Devon, a man was swept away in a river and there was extensive transport disruption. Rail services were cancelled due to fallen trees and Gatwick Airport was affected by flooding. Severe flooding occurred in Leatherhead, Surrey from the River Mole.

There was further stormy weather with heavy rain and strong winds on 26 to 27 December and again around 30 to 31 December. Transport disruption continued with flooded railways and fallen trees blocking roads in Wales, while Dumfries and Galloway experienced severe flooding as the River Nith burst its banks. Flooding impacts continued into the New Year period, and in early January included large-scale river flooding from the River Severn in Gloucestershire and sections of the River Thames. In a repeat of the floods of November 2012, the Somerset Levels were also inundated.

A major focus of concern was high spring tides and large waves combining to cause an extreme risk of coastal flooding. The historic promenade in Aberystwyth was severely damaged by large waves, and there was further damage and flooding to coastlines elsewhere, particularly the South Coast and Welsh coastline; the stormy conditions made coastal areas extremely dangerous and in Devon a teenager died after being swept away.

January and February 2014

The storms continued into the start of 2014 and resulted in numerous weather-related impacts across the UK through the period. There were major flooding problems, with the Environment Agency reporting at least 6000 properties flooded. The Somerset Levels continued to be very badly affected, with large areas remaining under water from late December through the winter period, and severe flooding also affected much of the River Thames through Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Surrey. Large swathes of the River Severn floodplain were also inundated, although many areas benefited from flood defences - for example Worcester escaped significant flooding and temporary barriers deployed at Upton-upon-Severn also prevented flooding.

Flooding on the Somerset Levels 2 February 2014

As well as flooding to properties and businesses, transport infrastructure was also affected with many roads underwater and several villages on the Somerset Levels only accessible by boat. The South West main line railway was also affected by flooding on the Somerset Levels. Agriculture was badly affected, with large areas of crops underwater and farmers having to evacuate livestock from flooded land.

As well as inland flooding, there were numerous impacts from the storms around the coastlines of the south and west. Strong winds, high tides and tidal surges acting in combination led to huge waves battering the coastline. The wavelength of the swell was particularly long, with individual waves building up large amounts of speed and energy, and reaching record heights. The most severe storm was on 12 February, when the Kinsale Energy Gas Platform off southern Ireland recorded a maximum wave height of 25 metres (82 feet) and winds reached hurricane force.

The storms made conditions around the coastline exceptionally dangerous. The South West main line railway was severely damaged at Dawlish, Devon during the storm of 4 to 5 February, severing a key transport link to the South West for many weeks. Huge waves overtopped coastal flood defences and many coastal communities in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset experienced coastal flooding and damage to infrastructure, buildings and sea defences. The storms also resulted in major coastal erosion, for example by altering beach profiles in several locations. Coastal damage was exacerbated by the cumulative effect of the sequence of storms in rapid succession with little respite between storm systems.

The storms and strong winds also caused widespread impacts inland. Many trees were felled by the wind and on 12 February around 100,000 homes and businesses were without power. Several buildings experienced structural damage from the strong winds. For example, the storm of 12 February resulted in some damaged roofs at Porthmadog, Gwynedd and a member of the public was killed on 13 February after trees brought down power lines in Wiltshire. A motorist was killed in central London on 14 February after falling masonry struck a car. The Met Office issued a Red Warning for wind - the highest level of warning - for parts of North Wales and north-west England for the storm of 12 February 2014, while at the height of the storms more than 15 severe flood warnings were in place for the coast of southern England, the Somerset Levels and the Thames Valley.

Records broken

The persistent heavy rainfall through the season resulted in this being the wettest winter for the UK, England, Wales and Scotland, and the equal-wettest winter for Northern Ireland since 1910.

The westerly and unsettled weather meant that conditions were mild, with snowfalls largely confined to the Scottish mountains, and fewer air frosts for the UK than for any other winter in a series from 1961. Mean temperatures over the UK were well above the long-term average for all three months.

Rainfall totals in December exceeded twice the monthly average across much of south-east England and Scotland, where it was the wettest calendar month in a series from 1910. The UK overall recorded 156% of December average rainfall. In January, much of southern England recorded two to three times the average rainfall and in south-east England it was the equal-wettest calendar month in the series from 1910. The UK overall recorded 155% of January average rainfall. The wet theme continued through February, which became the 3rd wettest in the series. For winter overall, the UK received 165% of average rainfall. Some parts of the country had in excess of twice the average winter rainfall and the region of south east and central south of England had 235% of the average.

How did our forecasts help?

The Met Office's trusted, authoritative warnings enabled many people, including contingency planners, emergency responders and the general public, prepare for and take action to avoid the impact of the storms over the winter months. Below is a list of some of the ways that our forecasts helped:

  • People opted to work from home to avoid travelling in the adverse conditions.
  • When severe weather was forecast, local councils took the appropriate action such as clearing drains of leaves at the start of the season and had staff on standby throughout the night and clearing up during the morning of the storm.
  • Train services were cancelled to avoid the danger of trees on the lines. Alternative transport measures were set up to get passengers to their destinations.
  • Over the Christmas period, many members of the general public changed their travel plans to avoid travelling during the most severe weather conditions.
  • The general public also took additional action during the severe conditions, such as avoiding walking close to promenades and cliffs, following our advice on our NSWWS and our other communication platforms.
  • Utility companies took the appropriate action to cater for the adverse conditions, such as calling in extra staff in preparation for power lines coming down.

What makes our accurate forecasts possible?

Without our warnings, the threat to public safety and damage to the UK economy and infrastructure could have been a lot worse during the extreme weather of the 2013/2014 winter. New ways of collecting, measuring and interpreting data helped the Met Office to predict the timing and severity of the storm systems that affected the British Isles.

Increased observational coverage of the atmosphere over the ocean to the south and west of the UK has improved by increasing the quality and quantity of observations from ships, aircraft, buoys, radar and satellites. The Met Office also receives data through WOW (Weather Observations Website). This is real time data that we receive from the general public, either from them sending the data in, or directly from their automated weather stations. This can be especially useful during times of severe weather, such as in snow situations. We also receive data from an increasing number of stations, and satellite and radar imagery continues to improve. Developments in our science over many years, investment in our supercomputer and continually refining the computer models used in forecasting further increase the accuracy and reliability of our forecasts.

Our messages are now better communicated to the general public through the use of social media. Twitter and Facebook were used to give advice on the latest National Severe Weather Warning Service (NSWWS), giving information on the changing warnings during the storms.

In summary, advances in science, technology, communication and platforms, and working with our partners all contribute to being able to make forecasts that were previously impossible.

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