Storms and stormy weather... past, present, and future

A view of the stormy seas at Sidmouth on Sunday. Photo by Simon Horn. Ref shs 2547-43-13SH. To order

Stormy seas at Sidmouth - Credit: Simon Horn

After a pleasant summer in Sidmouth, the local effect of the cool sea masked the extreme weather elsewhere. 

In July, the Northern Hemisphere record land temperatures were 2.770C warmer than the 20th century average. 

As the winter storm season approaches, what is in store?  Examining past events, current trends and understanding the science, provides the clues. 

Extreme weather events are increasing. Australia had more fires this year than during the last 50 years; Western USA temperature records were exceeded by 5 to 100C; China had significant dust storms and flooding; Europe had new record temperatures and flooding. Recent severe hurricanes are a result of very warm sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.    

Historically, the West Country has suffered from intense storms. In January 1607, a storm swept the North Coast of Devon and Somerset (2,000 deaths and widespread flooding 14 miles inland, with a surge of 7.7 metres).  This category two hurricane was combined with an exceptionally high tide of seven metres.  In December 1703 a similar strength storm destroyed much of the British fleet at Chatham, incurring 1,500 to 10,000 deaths. Afterwards, the Dutch took advantage and destroyed many remaining vessels; a fact not mentioned in many British history books. 

No drastic storms have been reported in Sidmouth this last century, other than the local floods in 1960 and later in Exeter. 

In Carlisle, a stationary weather front/atmospheric river caused significant flooding, where in 2009, there was a one in 1000-year flooding event, only to be followed six years later by an even worse one in 5,000-year flooding event. This begs the question of how a one in 1,000-year event can be closely followed by a one in 5,000-year event?    

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Sidmouth’s violent storm of November 23, 1824 has not received much attention. The surface pressure was measured at 958mb, a category two to three hurricane with strong winds from the South West.  Chit Rock, over 40 feet high, possibly bigger than the “Picket Rock”, Ladram, was “thrown down and nothing but its base remains”.  The present-day Ladram stacks (other than those which were destroyed in the Second World War when used for RN target practice) were protected by Start Point with a wind from the West of South West.  The storm surge was 2.5 metres, with waves up to six metres above the high-water mark (a combination a very high spring tide and surge).  Intense damage resulted from Polperro to Plymouth breakwater, Sidmouth and all of Lyme Bay. 

One naval officer compared the storm to those seen in the West Indies hurricanes. 

The storm is however well known in the annals of the Commons parliamentary records:  “In the midst of this sublime and terrible storm, Dame Partington, (of Sidmouth) who lived upon the beach, was seen at the door of her house with mop and pattens, trundling her mop, squeezing out the sea-water, and vigorously pushing away the Atlantic Ocean.”  Her house and houses by the beach were destroyed.  

This tale was cartooned and used to lampoon the House of Lords, who opposed widening voting rights. “The house rose, the people cheered, and tears of superabundant laughter trickled down the cheeks of fair women and veteran reformers” when the story was re-enacted in the Commons mocking the House of Lords as opposing the forces of reform.  

The IPPC6 WG1 report, July 2021 states: “The proportion of intense tropical cyclones (categories 4-5) and peak wind speeds of the most intense tropical cyclones are projected to increase at the global scale with increasing global warming (high confidence).”  The UK Committee for Climate Change, CCRA3, June 2021, chapter one especially, discusses mid-latitude storm events. “The severity of extremes is projected to increase with global warming” and “How the North Atlantic Jet stream may behave in the future will determine the UK winter climate and extremes”.  More severe extreme events will happen more frequently. 

On a positive note, in a sensible planning regime, there are simple actions that can be taken to alleviate impact of extreme weather. Holland is building now for an increase of two metres sea level rise over the next couple of decades.   

In Colorado stringent laws for the past three decades, require new constructions to have “balancing ponds” to provide retention of heavy sudden rainfall, which worked exceptionally well in the 2013 floods. In the North West UK, wetlands are being re-introduced to hold back flood water, preventing downstream flooding.   

East Devon District Council would do well to emulate, require retention ponds and stop approving submitted plans covering land with impermeable surfaces without the compensatory balancing.  The objective should be to provide resilience to both repeatable past storms and future extreme events in a warming climate and not follow the approach of Dame Partington and the House of Lords which eventually had to accept the course of change. 

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