Sunday 26 October 2014

Devastating storms last winter were 'the worst in 143 years'

Published 28/08/2014 | 02:30

A car lies under a fallen tree on Block Road in Portlaoise. Photo: Tim Keane.
Large waves caused by high winds and spring tides batter the coastal town of Lahinch , Co Clare.
Children are evacuated from Listellick NS in Tralee after high winds blew the roof off the building.

The winter storms which wreaked havoc across much of the country between December and February last were the worst on record.

Not since records began some 143 years ago have there been so many storms of such intensity in such a short period of time, climatologists at NUI Maynooth have revealed.

The storms caused damage totalling €156m, left 260,000 homes without power and devastated coastal communities, ripping up promenades and uprooting more than seven million trees.

Storm-force winds occurred on 12 different days, with rainfall two times above normal. A maximum wave height of 25 metres was recorded by the Kinsale Energy gas platform, the highest on record.

Dr Tom Matthews from the Department of Geography at NUI Maynooth said the extreme weather was caused by cold air from the polar ice caps which spread into North America. Conditions were perfect for creating storms as it moved across the warm north Atlantic ocean,

"It was beyond anything our parents, grandparents and their parents experienced," he told the Irish Independent. "The conditions we experienced were related to what was going on upstream over North America.

"High winds and high precipitation (rainfall) events are caused by low pressure, or cyclones. We wondered had we seen a lot more cyclones than usual.

Intensity

The data we used covering the north Atlantic goes back to the winter of 1948 and 1949, but it goes further back in Ireland and the UK to the winter of 1871 and 1872.

"It's a combination of frequency and intensity, the average intensity by the number of events, which is why it was the stormiest in more than 140 years."

Records from Met Eireann show that more than half of all weather stations recorded their wettest winter on record, with the worst storm on February 12 last when winds gusting up to 86 knots (160kmh) were recorded at Shannon Airport.

There was widespread flooding across the country, while water supplies were severely disrupted as power lines were downed.

The distinguishing feature of the winter weather was the "seemingly unending series" of Atlantic storms which crossed the county, Met Eireann's winter weather bulletin noted.

While previous winters saw more storms, for example in 1914 and 1915, and ones which were more intense, such as storms in the late 1980s and early 1990s, no year in the 143-year record endured a winter as severe as the last one, when the frequency and intensity are combined.

Climate change experts believe that Ireland will endure more extreme events such as these unless global warming is tackled. While one winter was not evidence of irreversible change, Dr Matthews said it did point to the need for further research.

"The exceptional nature of last winter's storminess emphasises the importance of understanding the processes driving such extremes, particularly in light of increased cyclone activity in this part of the Atlantic," he said.

"This is an important task, as such destructive weather events are of tremendous societal significance. We have established it is exceptional, but the golden question is: is it getting stormier? It's complicated to establish that with certainty."

The research is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Irish Independent

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