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Page last updated at 10:06 GMT, Tuesday, 14 September 2010 11:06 UK
Wild Weather: The perfect storm
By Paul Bartlett
Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society

Lightning during a thunder storm
Thunder and lightning across the night sky

Cambridgeshire, a county in East Anglia. Storms? No, surely not.

I was forecasting at RAF Wittering on Friday, 2 January 1976; no one was flying due to the holiday break, and the airfield was deserted.

All the Harriers were in the hangars. The sky was grey with low clouds scudding across it.

I looked at the anemograph at 10am, and saw that it was gusting to 40mph. Still, it was fairly dry so I continued to draw up UK charts.

Pressure was falling fast over Scotland, so I issued a gale warning with gusts to 52mph.

Severe gale warning

The public phone rang occasionally, but otherwise I had little to do except administration. By midday I had analysed more data.

The northwest European chart showed a wave depression west of the Hebrides. Heavy pressure falls were increasing up there, yet the pressure to the southwest of England was holding - thus the pressure gradient over Wittering was tightening fast.

An oil can flew past the window. As we were on the first floor I found this interesting
Paul Bartlett

There was nothing for it but to issue a severe gale warning with gusts to 75mph.

Now sometimes there are times when a forecaster realises that things are unusual; this was one.  Issuing further warnings was unnecessary, but the public began phoning incessantly, occasionally joined by Engineering Wing.

Howling wind

It was certainly wild outside the office. Airfields tend to be desolate places with no trees, and now with no aircraft or even people around it was almost eerie, with a howling wind and low fast-moving cloud.

Two hours had passed and it was getting towards late afternoon. Pressure fell heavily over northern Scotland as the low began heading southeast towards Denmark.

An oil can flew past the window. As we were on the first floor I found this interesting. The double glazing was beginning to bow inwards.

The observer told me we were recording winds of 63mph. I took the risk of a telling-off and rang Wing Commander Operations at his home.

I now decided that gusts of up to 104mph were possible and saw no decrease occurring until after 10pm. He was grateful for the call, although we both realised there was nothing we could do.

Wailing like a banshee

Paul Bartlett
Paul Bartlett, Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Office

I drove home to Lincolnshire up the A1. Westerly winds were often gusty on that stretch due to patchy woodland to the west.

I had to slow down to 30mph as the car was being dragged to the right by the weight of the gusts.

Home at last. Then the phone rang; a neighbour was worried.

She may well have been because it was wailing like a banshee outside and loose bricks and tiles were flying. I went over to her house, and we had a chat.

Sherry or whisky

I stressed the wind should begin to ease around 10pm. I then wound up by doing a tour of the ten houses in our close, having a sherry or whisky in each one.

The usual questions were when would it end and how much worse would it get?

Anyway, at 9pm I arrived at an ex-aircrew's home and was about to have, on his insistence, yet another scotch.

Just then there was an almighty crash and the power went off. A tree was down. It only cracked a window but it also jammed his front door shut.

Crawling cautiously

Anyway, feeling quite brave by now, I strode out of the back door and began to head home. Two paces later I was picking myself up off the road while more tiles flew past my head.

So, feeling a lot less brave, I decided to crawl the 20 yards home.

When power cables come down and are wrapped round your house emitting large blue flashing sparks, timidity soon sets in, and crawling cautiously I decided I might get in the back if I waited for a lull.

When one occurred I bolted to the back, shot in the house and locked the door - whatever was out there could stay out!

Crash helmet

Lightning during a thunder storm
Lightning and high winds brought down trees in the county

My wife had lit the candles and we had a fire in the hearth. That was about it.

I rang the Wittering meteorologist at 10pm and he said the maximum gust was 105mph; he had his crash helmet on and was expecting the windows to implode at anytime.

One thing about meteorological observers is they are expected to observe the weather accurately - and nothing is ever going to stop them. A rare breed.

Without power

In conclusion, there was a windier place than Wittering, and that was Middlesborough which recorded 114mph.

No doubt they also went without power for three days and listened to the continuous roar of chain saws just as we did.

Then things returned to normal, and the kettle and saucepan were returned from the hearth to the kitchen.

Average rainfall

The Met Office has published a map showing the average rainfall for East Anglia during the month of January. The averages are for the period 1971 to 2000.

Hottest dayHottest Day 36.9Cambridge Botanic Gardens on 10th August 2003
Windiest dayWindiest Day 105 mph Wittering on 2nd Jauary 1976

Wild Weather can be seen on BBC One at 7.30pm on Monday 20 September.

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