This Side of the pond – Oct. 19

By Sarah Pridgeon

My social media feeds were awash on Monday with photographs from back home – or, at least, they claimed to be. Each was the same, yet none were familiar, for they all showed a beige sky stretching as far as the eye could see with a flaming red sun in the center.

Under normal circumstances, the UK tends to avoid the path of dramatic weather systems. Unlike our neighbors here in the States, who have been very much in my thoughts as they pick up the pieces from the recent hurricanes, we seldom experience tragedy from the Earth’s most powerful weather systems.

But Ophelia has proven the anomaly. The remnants of this particular hurricane hit Ireland on Monday, causing three deaths, knocking out power and creating major disruption before moving on towards Scotland.

Winds of up to 97 mph tore the roof from the football stadium in Cork, while 20-foot waves were seen a hop across the waters in Devon and the south west of England prepared itself for floods, high winds and storm surges.

But before the hurricane hit the UK mainland, a strange phenomenon heralded its arrival. The skies took on an appearance that few had ever seen before and none could quite understand.

In the end, the explanation was no less startling than the image. According to weather experts, Hurricane Ophelia had dragged not just tropical air in its wake, but also dust all the way from the Sahara Desert.

For reference, that’s a distance of 2500 miles. Ophelia began in the Azores and moved north, picking up the dust right at the beginning of its journey and dragging it through the atmosphere all the way to a couple of little islands in the northern part of Europe.

Debris from forest fires in southern Europe – Portugal and Spain – added to the phenomenon. Together, these particles scattered the blue light, turning the sun an apocalyptic red. Some suggested it was what the world must have looked like in the olden days, when everything was sepia; others were just surprised Britain was seeing the sun at all at this time of year.

The cyclone wasn’t supposed to come anywhere near the UK, of course. My homeland of drizzle and cloud cover is decidedly not a tropical country. The storm even broke the Met Office’s storm tracker, which doesn’t automatically map tropical events that far north because they’re not supposed to happen.

Ophelia was quickly identified as the worst storm in half a century.  Its arrival eerily coincided with another of my homeland’s rare weather events: the Great Storm of 1987. I was only eight years old when that event took place, but I remember it well.

I am among the many thousands of people who will recall the esteemed BBC weatherman Michael Fish not for his years of service to the Met Office, but for his comments before the storm began. He said it was a false alarm, you see, and that there wasn’t going to be a storm at all.

He said that a lady had called the BBC to say she’d heard there was a hurricane on the way and told the nation, “Well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t!” If you watched the opening ceremony for the Olympics in 2012, you may have actually seen this broadcast, as it was included in the video montage for some reason.

The poor man has stated several times since then that he’d meant Hurricane Floyd, which was at that time affecting the Florida Keys. Either way, he failed to warn the south west of England that a major weather event was moving towards it.

I remember sheltering with my family in the garage that day as the winds whistled and the rain fell. I had no idea what it signified, except that I wasn’t as close to my toy box as I would have liked and nobody had brought any biscuits.

What I did notice was the aftermath: trees laying across roads and buildings, broken windows, shrapnel everywhere and shellshock on many a face. The winds during that storm reached 120 mph and it’s said that 15 million trees were felled in the space of a single day.

That included plenty of historic specimens, some of which were special to me personally. I’ve mentioned before the “Avenue of Trees” on a road that was once the driveway to a stately house.

On one side, 365 old oak trees stood; on the other, 366 of the same. After the great storm, there were gaps like missing teeth from one end to the other – 30 years later, the saplings that were planted in their stead still pale in comparison to their centuries-old neighbors.

The great storm left one final legacy in its wake, and a peculiar one at that: the Michael Effect. If you ever visit the UK and tune in to the weather forecast on any local channel, you might notice that the person announcing said weather seems to be Chicken Little in disguise.

That’s because no weatherman in Britain wants to join Mr. Fish and go down in history for failing to see a disaster coming. Just to be sure that doesn’t happen, they will all predict the worst possible scenario, every time. It’s no wonder the Brits are constantly talking about the weather, really, when our forecasts turn every drizzle into a cyclone.