Taken by storm

28th November 2003 at 00:00
On October 15, 1987, television viewers heard these reassuring words from chatty weather man Michael Fish: "Earlier on today, apparently," he announced, "a woman rang the BBC and said she heard that there was a hurricane on the way. Well, if you're watching, don't worry, there isn't."

Both he and the mystery caller were referring to a tropical cyclone that had been whipping across from the western Atlantic. Forecasters predicted that the cyclone would not reach the British Isles - and their prediction was correct.

Meanwhile, however, a separate and fairly unremarkable storm was developing over the Bay of Biscay, where warm air from Africa was running into cold air from the Arctic. This had been predicted days in advance and severe weather warnings had been issued across Europe. It was this storm that Michael Fish was referring to when he continued: "Having said that, actually, the weather will become very windy, but most of the strong winds, incidentally, will be down over Spain and across into France."

Meteorologists still argue about what happened next, but it seems likely that high-altitude winds emanating from the cyclone interacted with warm air from the Bay of Biscay causing sudden condensation and a massive release of latent heat.

Then, instead of tracking along the English Channel as expected, this newly energised European storm suddenly headed north-east.

Strictly speaking, it never was a hurricane. But by breakfast time, it had killed 18 people, destroyed 15 million trees and caused damage valued at pound;1 billion.

Not least among the victims of the greatest storm since 1703 was the Met Office, which concedes that its forecasts were lacking. "For sea areas," it says, "warnings of severe weather were both timely and adequate. Forecasts for land areas, however, left much to be desired."

Following widespread criticism, methods of collecting weather data and issuing severe weather warnings were improved.

As for Michael Fish, he appears to have sustained no lasting structural damage. According to recent observations, Britain's longest-serving television weatherman is as chatty as ever.

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