Top computers would still miss killer UK storm

In a lunchtime broadcast on 15 October 1987, weather forecaster Michael Fish made a prediction that would come to define his career.

“Earlier on today apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she’d heard there was a hurricane on the way,” he confidently told viewers.

“Well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t.”

It was one of the last broadcasts before the Great Storm of 1987, which hit the UK with winds of up to 115 mph, left hundreds of thousands of homes without power, and killed 18 people – the most damaging storm to hit the UK since 1703.

It was an embarrassment for Mr Fish, whose name became synonymous with wrong predictions.

But scientists have now said that even today’s supercomputers may not have been able to predict the storm precisely.

Image:The storm caused destruction across the UK

When the Met Office revisited the event with modern weather forecasting technology, the weather system could be seen approaching a few days in advance.

But even with a modern system performing 14,000 trillion calculations per second the storm would have still been difficult to track.

Scientists say today’s machines would have picked up indications of the storm heading south, and that it would have been given a yellow or amber warning rather than red, indicating the most severe.

Ken Mylne, head of verification at Met Office, said even today predicting the 1987 storm would involve a “strong degree of uncertainty”.

The precise causes of the storm’s destructiveness were also unknown in 1987, Sky News Meteorologist Chris England said.

“The damage was in large part due to a phenomenon called a sting jet that was only identified by analysis,” he explained.

A rare and violent weather event, a sting jet involves high-velocity, high-altitude winds being brought down to the surface of the earth.

“We didn’t know about it then – and we only know about it now, in part, from looking at the 1987 storm,” Mr England said.

Sunday night marks exactly 30 years since the Great Storm of 1987 and Mr Fish’s error.

The presenter – who has gone on to have a long and successful career – has previously defended his mistake, telling the BBC that forecasting remains unpredictable even with access to new technologies.

“You can never say no in the weather business” he said.