Worst winter, or is it just an illusion?

Hooray for Henry as he leaves our shores and heads for Scandinavia.
Flooding in CrostonFlooding in Croston
Flooding in Croston

Now let’s imagine Imogen and the sort of havoc she could cause if she comes calling over the next few days.

Eight storms have hit the UK in the past 12 weeks and experts say we can expect a couple more before this miserable winter departs . . . possibly with an Arctic sting in its tail.

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The worst one for a very long time? Or just a meteorologal illusion created by giving them all a cuddly identity?

“We’ve certainly noticed them more now they’ve all got fancy names,” said amateur forecaster Stuart Markham, who runs the popular Chorley Weather website. “But in fact, nationally, it’s not that long ago since we had one like this.”

While Abigail, Barney, Clodagh, Desmond, Eva, Frank, Gertrude and now Henry have battered Britain on a trans-Atlantic conveyor belt since early November, this rapid windstorm sequence is nothing new.

The floods they have triggered in Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire have been some of the worst ever experienced. Yet this particular pattern of extreme weather is far from unusual.

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El Nino, a global phenomenon which springs up in the equatorial Pacific thousands of miles from Britain, is to blame. But, as the event occurs on average around three times a decade, the adverse effect it has on weather here is not as rare as it might seem.

“2013/14 was the wettest winter on record in the UK,” said Stuart. “Had we had names for the storms that year then we would probably have remembered them more.

“With El Nino we get global patterns that turn out to be very strange. They’ve even had snow in Dubai.

“This one is the first since 2009 and possibly the strongest we’ve experienced. But I wouldn’t say the frequency of storms is anything too unusual.”

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El Nino starts when a band of warm ocean water develops in the Pacific, sparking a sequence of weather events around the world and affecting the jet stream crossing the Atlantic. Newfoundland becomes a breeding ground for storms heading across to Europe, with low pressure systems being “beefed up” en route.

Met Office forecaster Emma Sharples said: “If you look back to 2013/14, if anything there were more periods of stormy weather than this winter.

“Windstorms are being named for the first time this winter in a pilot project between ourselves and Ireland’s Met Eireann. Maybe people are taking more notice of them as a result.

“I don’t think we can deny it has been very wet. December was the wettest month on record. But we really can’t say whether we are going to continue to see storm after storm for the remainder of February.”

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Back in Chorley, Stuart is convinced Henry won’t be the last storm of this windy winter.

“We aren’t finished yet,” he said. “I think it will be another seven to 10 days, easily, of this with maybe one for the weekend and possibly one for next week. There is every chance we will get two or three before it’s done.

“Then, based on past history, it will turn very cold for a while from mid-February onwards. The winter will have a sting in its tail. Early spring certainly looks like it could be cold.”

Stuart’s passion for weather resulted in him creating a website last March which already has 30,000 visitors a month. He might be an amateur forecaster, but he has a reputation for knowing his stuff.

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He has been researching this winter looking at more than 160 years of records and admits that, beyond around seven days, forecasting is largely a case of looking back, not forward, to weather patterns from seasons gone by.

Of the storms to hit the UK so far, the strongest in terms of wind has been Gertrude at the end of last week where gusts of up to 105mph were recorded.

It all started with Abigail on November 10, the first ever to be given an official name by both the UK and Irish Met Offices following a call for suggestions from the public. Worst affected were areas of northern Scotland where schools closed and more than 20,000 were left without power.

No sooner had Abigail departed than Barney appeared, causing widespread disruption to rail travel in the South and Midlands.

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Within days Clodagh had arrived, the first to hit the North West full-on, bringing with her 97mph winds and more heavy rain. Around 1,800 homes were left without power in Preston.

December opened with Storm Desmond wreaking havoc across the North West, with thousands of homes left without electricity in Lancaster and horrendous floods hitting Carlisle further north.

After a welcome gap of three weeks and with the mopping up operation still underway, it was Lancashire’s turn to be inundated as Eva struck on Boxing Day, breaching flood defences and bringing devastation to villages like Croston, St Michaels and Whalley.

Frank gave the region a glancing blow three days later, causing huge problems in Scotland just as the New Year celebrations were about to begin. And then last weekend Gertrude ploughed through, bringing yet more wind and rain to Lancashire.

Lancashire’s forecast is for Henry’s wind to die down and a calmer period come in, before more changeable weather arriving later in the week.

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