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Storm Ophelia – Britain’s New Reality?

By | Published October 23, 2017

Here in the British Isles we are used to a certain level of dreariness, grey skies and drizzle with the occasional knee-deep flooding after a particularly prolonged period of said drizzle. Our green and pleasant land has rarely seen anything such as the ferocity of the recent wrath of Storm Ophelia, as it came in from the Atlantic and across Ireland, as well as western Scotland and Wales.

We do not often see this type of large storm heading towards us, but on this occasion we have. This was due to waters that are warmer than usual and cooler conditions in the upper atmosphere. Storm Ophelia is the first to develop this far east since the 1990s and the strongest east Atlantic hurricane in 150 years. It started over the Azores before heading west and then sharply north and although downgraded from a category 3 to a post-tropical storm as it came over colder water, it still hit Ireland with winds of up to 100mph.

These extraordinary conditions caused terrible damage with the biggest tragedy being the deaths of at least three people, with 120,000 homes without power and destructive waves (largest being 17.81m) being whipped up by the fierce winds devastating the coast. Although both Storm Debbie in 1961 and Storm Charley in 1986 caused more loss of life (18 and 11 respectively), it is likely that will be a very expensive event for the country’s insurers but not as much as the €111million that 2014’s Storm Darwin. This all occurred during the 7th most intense Atlantic hurricane season since 1850 with 10 hurricanes in as many weeks.       

The storm also produced less destructive events with much of the country waking up to a strange red sun that cast an eerie, post-apocalyptic glow across much of the UK, including Birmingham. This is actually a transnational phenomenon as the winds of Storm Ophelia kicked up dust from the Sahara into the atmosphere that scattered the light from the sun creating a spectacular hue.

Further from home, the winds of Storm Ophelia acted as a giant, natural bellows for wildfires across the Iberian Peninsula. After a hot and dry summer, the land was perfect tinder for flames and they spread quickly, propelled by the storm. This has resulted in deadly consequences with 32 people killed and the air full of ash and smoke.

2017 is a year during which there have been more days with an active category 5 hurricane than any other year on record. A 2013 study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters says that Western Europe might see a much larger number of these intense tropical or post-tropical storms. This is linked to global warming and the increase in global temperatures and the temperatures of the oceans. as Tropical Revolving Storms, although still mysterious, are known to prosper in warm waters. As the world’s oceans are now one degree warmer on average than 140 years ago, it is likely that we will continue to see more extreme storms and in places that are not used to them.