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Tragic London storm marked slide into WW1

Over the years significant weather events have, at least in my subconscience, at times signalled that something ‘big’ is about to happen – just one example being the Great Storm in October 1987 that was followed days later by the Black Monday stock market crash.

So an event that happened 100 years ago this month, to some, probably also brought a feeling of impending doom as the political situation in Europe became ever more fraught.

Account of the thunderstorm reported in The Times
Account of the thunderstorm reported in The Times

A series of severe thunderstorms that broke out just after midday over south-west London on June 14, 1914, left people dead and a trail of destruction across areas south of the Thames. Fierce lightning, torrential rain, severe flooding and hail ‘the size of walnuts’ accompanied the storms. Seven people were killed by lightning on Wandsworth Common and four others were injured. As with many thunderstorms the heaviest rain, 94mm in 3 hours at Richmond Park, was focused over a small area. South Kensington, just over 5 miles away, recorded just 6mm! I don’t have the figures for Wanstead but judging by the map published in the 1914 edition of British Rainfall it probable recorded even less than South Kensington.

Some reports by observers.

Dulwich: Violent hailstorms. Many hailstones were like acid tablets about one inch long, half an inch broad and over a quarter of an inch thick. A minute or two after these had fallen, a mist rose to a height of about 4ft above the ground.

Lewisham: A storm began at 12.24pm and came right overhead from the east with terrific flashes of lightning and loud thunder. At 12.31pm, rain fell with extraordinary fury; within 9 minutes 0.5 inches had fallen. The second storm came up just after 1pm, the lightning being even more severe. At 1.30pm, St Mark’s Church, and the Holy Cross were  struck. A tree in Hither Green cemetery over 30ft high was splintered and two houses were struck at Catford. Another thunderstorm came up at 2.25pm with torrents of rain and hail as large as haricot beans fell for 5 minutes.

Rainfall in the London area - June 14, 1914 - shown in the publication British Rainfall
Rainfall in the London area – June 14, 1914 – shown in the publication British Rainfall

Richmond Park: Very severe storm passed over the house; an oak fence was struck by lightning in two places. Rainfall measurements were as follows: 1.80 inches in 45 minutes, 2.70 inches in 90 minutes, 3.2 inches in 2 hours, 3.60 inches in 2.5 hours, 3.70 inches in 2.75 hours.

Wimbledon Downs: There was a curious scene close to Kingston station, where the water was about 4ft feet deep at five o’clock and motor cars and omnibuses had to make a wide detour. The storm was especially severe in Wimbledon district, where, owing to the bursting of an overtaxed sewer, the District Railway line was submerged. At Tooting Junction station was a foot deep on the platform.

Judging by the 1881-1910 average 1914 was a warm year: the mean temperature of 10.7C  was a full degree warmer than average. It was also 15 per cent wetter than average and the sun hours were nearly 108% of average. Of course by today’s standards (the 1981-2010 average) 1914 looks relatively cool as the average annual temperature has risen 1C in the past hundred years.

The weather on this day must have been synonimous with the deteriorating political situation in Europe: two weeks later Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo by a young Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip , the casus belli of the First World War.

What is fascinating is that a similar thunderstorm that left seven dead in Valentines Park, Ilford, 75 years ago this August, also happened about two weeks before Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced on September 3, 1939, that Britain was at war with Germany.

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This wet winter is by no means unique

With flooding in the Somerset Levels dominating the headlines it is easy to get carried away with media hysteria that we are in unprecedented times in terms of rainfall. But as with so many media stories these days you don’t have to look far back in meteorological records to find that we’ve been here before.

The jetstream has been virtually ever present over the UK this winter, driving depression after depression over our isles
The jetstream has been virtually ever present over the UK this winter, driving depression after depression over our isles

Although I base this blog on local figures – two series of stats going back to 1881 and 1959 – it is notable that this particular microclimate has actually been dryer than neighbouring areas, including east Essex where the rain crossing this area often peters out. With such power in the jet stream, however, bands of rain have been pushing right through this winter. Surrey has also been notably wetter, with orographic uplift only partly responsible for the increased wetness. Anyone driving around the M25 will have noticed the flooded fields at the side of the motorway.

It has been mentioned that this winter has been the most cyclonic in recent memory, but you only have to go back to the winter of 2000-01 to find a more cyclonic winter, though that season saw fewer severe gales.

Since the beginning of the meteorological winter on December 1st Wanstead has recorded 235.6mm of rain to February 6th. Considering the 1959 series that’s 7% wetter than the winter of 1989/90 – though this winter is actually 0.9C colder than that season 24 years ago.

Looking at the bigger picture, and with 22 days to go, this winter is currently 7th wettest in the series going back to 1881 – quite a way behind 1915 which saw 343.7mm recorded. Looking at the GFS model out to 9 days, however, there is much more rain to come.

The season so far, in terms of temperature and rainfall, has been notable in that autumn did not really offer any hints as to how winter would unfold. At the beginning of December I would have put the probability of a winter such as we have had so far at 10%. Should the rain continue to fall while the temperature stays mild the probability would fall to 1% – a truly exceptional winter in the same league as 1962/63 – but at the other end of the scale.

After my less than impressive stab at a winter forecast I am a bit loathe to make any more predictions. Trying to predict the weather more than a few days ahead with any detail is impossible. And seasonal forecasting is fraught with difficulty. However, precedent suggests we could be in for a warm and settled March. Indeed, if this year is anything like what followed in 1990 we could be in for a very nice summer. But then again we might not. As Mark Twain said: ‘Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get’.