The Great Storm of 1987, which was famously mis-forecast by Michael Fish, would now be spotted up to a week earlier by The Met Office’s new supercomputer, weather experts have discovered.
Hurricane-strength winds of up to 120 mph battered Britain on October 15th and 16th, killing 22 people, downing power lines and trees, closing roads, railways and schools and causing £1 billion worth of damage.
However the UK was wholly unprepared for the barrage after Fish told viewers: “Earlier on today a woman rang the BBC and said she had heard a hurricane was one the way. Well if you are watching, don’t worry there isn’t.’
The Great Storm: Michael Fish's 1987 hurricane forecast blooper
Now ahead of the 30th anniversary of the storm, The Met Office has re-run its 1987 forecast to find out if its new supercomputer could have predicted the devastation.
Meteorological experts confirmed that by the time Fish gave his lunchtime announcement on Wednesday October 15th 1987, an ‘Amber’ severe weather warning would have already been issued, and alerts sent out on social media.
The Met Office also they would certainly released a ‘named storm’ warning, joking that they may have even called it Storm Michael. The forecasters also said they would have spotted the violent weather system brewing up to a week ahead and would also have taken into account other factors, such as whether it would hit at rush hour, and if trees are in leaf.
Ken Mylne, Head of Verification, Impacts and Post-processing at The Met Office said: “The chance of us getting caught out now is much less.
“Today I think we would expect to get some good indications of risk up to a week ahead, possibly even further. We wouldn’t be absolutely certain but we would have started communicating the risk to people. The St Jude Storm we managed to warn people five days ahead.
“There would still be a degree of uncertainty in where the strongest winds might be.”
The Met Office’s supercomputer is able to make 14,000 trillion calculations per second, compared to the four million calculations per second available in 1987. The computer can also run ‘ensemble’ forecasts which allows meteorologists to see up to 50 versions of how the weather might play out.
Asked how Fish’s Wednesday forecast would have changed if he had used the new computer, Met Office meteorologist Alex Deakin added: “Leading up to it we would certainly have been talking about a wet windy spell, and on the Monday and Tuesday there is every chance there would have been a yellow warning at that stage, and in the days before, we would have named the storm. It might have been Storm Michael.
“On the Wednesday we would have told people it was shifting further south but to stay tuned to the forecast. By then we would have had an amber warning out and warnings that winds were getting up to 60 or 70mph.”
Ahead of the anniversary the National Trust also issued new images showing how Britain’s woods and forests have recovered since the storm.
Hundreds of thousands of trees – some aged more than 400 years old – were lost, on 3,000 acres across 58 sites. The landscape had been torn apart, and the conservation charity faced the biggest outdoor repair job in its history.
“It was a battle zone” says gardener Alan Comb, who had started work at Emmetts Garden, Kent, just a week after the storm hit. “There were trees sticking up like totem poles”.
Martin Sadler, now a Senior Gardener at Petworth, says, “I was only 18 and I’d never seen anything like it before. The trees came down like dominoes.”
During the aftermath of the storm, the Trust replanted 500,000 trees, and set up non-intervention zones where trees that seeded naturally were left to grow.
However, unexpectedly, the storm benefited several species. At Toys Hill, the former home and garden of National Trust founder Octavia Hill lost 98 per cent of its trees, but with the canopy gone, light reached areas which had remained in shadow, allowing native clematis, honeysuckle and heather to thrive for the first time in 100 years.
Birds and dormice also benefited. The woodlark and nightjar population increased, and little owls, tawny owls, buzzards, hobbies and sparrow hawks exploited the more open woodland.
The storm also exposed tree rings hidden for centuries, enabling the Trust to date them and reveal more about the history of the special places in its care.