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Page last updated at 09:42 GMT, Tuesday, 7 September 2010 10:42 UK
Great Storm: Michael Fish's famous forecast
Michael Fish
Michael Fish claims he was taken out of context

Michael Fish's weather forecast of 15 October is possibly the most famous prediction ever broadcast.

Michael, who now regularly presents on BBC South East Today and BBC Radio Kent claims he was taken out of context.

We spoke to him, and he told us why it wasn't a hurricane, why so many trees were uprooted and what caused the unusually high winds early on the 16 October 1987.

According to Michael, such storms are only expected every 200 years or so.

So, just for the record then Michael, what was all the fuss about?

I do distinctly recall going on television and saying categorically 'baton down the hatches, there's some extremely stormy weather on the way'. If that isn't a good forecast and a good warning, I don't know what is.

As far as I was concerned there wasn't even a problem. It [my forecast] wasn't even the evening before - it was another occasion and I was just linking to an item on the news about a hurricane that might be affecting Florida and I said - and in fact Florida has been craftily edited out of the clip - I said quite innocently and quite correctly that the hurricane wasn't going to affect Florida, nothing whatever to do with the UK.

Chartwell, in the aftermath of the great storm

It was completely out of context, at a different time talking about a completely different thing.

The ferocity of the winds was picked up very well by our forecasters in Bracknell. They issued gale warnings up to severe gale and storm force 11 even before the event so that was well annotated. What wasn't, was the track of the storm, which took it a little bit further over the land.

So was it a hurricane or not?

A hurricane is a tropical storm. It can only form in the tropics and can only affect the tropics. It has to be spawned with a sea temperature of at least 28 degrees. However what we did see was occasional 'hurricane-strength' winds.

And it wasn't just the winds that were unusual was it?

There were remarkable rises in temperature, in some cases up to 10, even 12 degrees C in the space of only 20 to 30 minutes. Likewise we had some huge rises in pressure - of 25 mille bars in some places - again in just a few minutes.

Although you think of low pressure causing strong winds - it wasn't. It was an extremely rapid rise in pressure that was more the cause of the winds than anything else.

But the truth is that the Met Office didn't expect the storm to make land-fall?

We had picked up that there would be this vicious storm four or five days in advance. But one of the problems is that we have a computer which has a numerical model and we use that entirely to do the forecasts. Because it's a global model, a very small error doesn't necessarily show up.

Michael Fish
Temperatures rose by up to 12 degrees in 20 minutes

The difference in track was between going up the English Channel to 50 miles further north and crossing the south east of the country - and on a global scale that is a minute error. Unfortunately of course to the man on the ground it makes all the difference.

I know that the Met Office issued timely warning for sea areas hours in advance but I also know that there was a problem because a strike of the French meteorological service or communications people.

We had no information whatsoever [from them] so we didn't know where the storm was and how intense it was until it got too close for comfort.

So how have forecasting methods changed since then?

In the last 20 years, the accuracy of forecasting has improved by about 5 per cent, which is a big margin. Technology has moved on - we've got bigger and more powerful computers. We have more pieces of equipment - we have buoys, we have satellites now.

Every few months things move on and the forecasts become more accurate. Because of the storm there was some additional funding which otherwise may not have been available.

And is it right that lives were probably saved by the fact that people were ignorant of the approaching storm?

Yes, it was a blessing in disguise. Even if we had warned people about the severity of the winds, they couldn't have stopped the damage to their fences and roofs and trees but they might, in the process [of trying] killed themselves. I think it was a case of ignorance is bliss. They were better safe than sorry tucked up in bed than trying to do stupid things outside.

How would you explain the catastrophic loss of trees during the night?

The damage caused in 1987 wasn't really anything to do with the wind, it was just an unfortunate set of circumstances.

15 million trees were lost
In the early hours of 16 October, 15 million trees were lost in the south east

Firstly, had it been a week or two later, there would probably have been hardly any damage at all - at least not to trees.

It was an unusually mild autumn and the trees were still in leaf when they shouldn't have been so they offered much bigger wind resistance.

Secondly it had been an exceptionally wet autumn so the root systems were in soggy mud and couldn't hold on and thirdly the wind came from a different direction. Trees in this country are braced against the prevailing wind which is south westerly. This particular wind came from the south and south east.

If you put all those factors together even the best of trees will fall over because they are simply not prepared for the circumstances and they probably could have fallen over in much lighter winds.

How likely are we to see another similar storm in the near future?

Chances of just such a storm happening again are once every 200 years. But one of the things with global warming is that severe storms such as this will get more and more frequent as time goes on. These things do happen and will continue to happen at ever increasing frequency.


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