Monday 23 September 2019

Year of 'extremes' in weather as country shivered and baked

Storms, blizzards and drought disrupted lives across Ireland in 2018 as Mother Nature went weird, writes Alan O'Keeffe

Clearing snow near Blessington, Co Wicklow. Picture: Damien Eagers
Clearing snow near Blessington, Co Wicklow. Picture: Damien Eagers

Alan O'Keeffe

Weather extremes made 2018 one of the most memorable years in decades.

Forecasters and climatologists were busy with a heatwave, a 'cold wave', a serious drought, and a rogues' gallery of storms named Emma, Ali, Callum, Diana, Eleanor, Fionn and Hector.

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The heaviest snowfall in decades was followed by drought conditions not seen in Ireland since the 1970s.

It was a year when ESB Networks crews faced deep snow obstacles and resorted to helicopters in some cases in Wexford to get power lines repaired.

Prolonged drought in the summer led to a historic nationwide Water Conservation Order, which led to a weeks-long ban on hosepipes being used.

Wildfires swept across parched mountain areas.

Leading climatologist Seamus Walsh said 2018 was definitely an "unusual" weather year. "Temperatures for the year came in around half a degree above average but that hides the fact that we got an extreme heatwave and also an extreme 'cold wave' within a couple of months of each other," said Walsh, head of Climatology and Observations at Met Eireann.

"These were quite extreme climate events happening very close to each other," he said.

Referring to the heavy snows at the end of February and early March, he said: "We had some really cold air that came all the way from Siberia, that some called the 'Beast From The East' and then an Atlantic storm that came up via the Azores and Iberia," he said.

He said the cold air stalled over Ireland and was hit by the approaching Storm Emma, which resulted in heavy snow instead of rain.

"The droughts we get in Ireland only happen every 30 years or so. They are quite rare. And the snowfall events are also quite rare. And they both happened the same year. In that context, it's been an unusual year," he said.

"We got two events that were opposite extremes within a very short time," he said.

He said he has no time for 'old wives' tales' about cold winters always being followed by hot summers. The year began with very unsettled weather with Storm Eleanor on January 2. More high winds hit two weeks later, courtesy of Storm Fionn.

Rainfall exceeded average January levels in all areas: Malin Head in Donegal recorded its highest monthly total of rain since 1885.

The snow arrived at the end of February. As March began, the exceptionally cold Polar Continental easterly air-stream covered Ireland. Storm Emma made her way up from the Bay of Biscay and announced her arrival by hurling large amounts of snow across the land.

Snow accumulated up to 69cm in the Wicklow Mountains and many areas of the country were cut off in counties Wexford, Wicklow, Meath and Kildare.

Another blast of snow arrived on the day after St Patrick's Day and two days later the lowest grass temperature was recorded at -13.2C in Markree, Co Sligo.

In May, temperatures began to soar, with 26.3C recorded at Shannon Airport on the 29th. High pressure over Scandinavia resulted in fine, dry weather in Ireland.

In late June, the heatwave hit and continued into early July. Dry, settled weather in the first half of June was broken briefly by Storm Hector's wind and rain, and was followed by another two weeks of exceptionally dry weather.

It was the driest June in the Phoenix Park in 77 years.

Drought conditions were reported in several parts of Ireland and prevailed until late July.

Temperatures soared to 32C at Shannon on June 28, the highest daily maximum at the airport since 1946.

Heatwave conditions baked the nation in early July. Absolute drought conditions continued until the middle of the month in the east, midlands, west and south. Partial drought conditions persisted in the south until the 25th.

In August, the weather split the country by giving cooler and wetter conditions in the north and west, while it remained warmer and drier in the south and east.

The first week of September brought more fine weather. But the weather truly broke with the arrival of Storm Ali and Storm Bronagh, also with the remnants of a weakened Hurricane Helene in the middle of the month.

Ali's violent Force 11 winds blasted western coastal areas and caused a lot of damage in Cavan and Monaghan.

October was mainly cool and dry, with Storm Callum bringing high winds to the south and west for two days. In November, Storm Diana brought gales and heavy rain back to the south and west.

Sean Hogan, National Director of Fire and Emergency Management, said the heavy snows of Storm Emma and the summertime drought brought challenges which were met locally and nationally by tried and tested crisis management systems.

"We try and learn from each event. We don't have control as this is nature reminding us that it can disrupt all our lives," he said.

The heavy snows of 2018 fell only a few months after Storm Ophelia in October 2017. So the National Emergency Management Committee had to close down the country for the second time in six months, he said.

When the drought came, the committee examined the implications for water supplies, although they already dealt with water supply issues during the heavy snow period.

"We depend on our utilities - our water and our electricity. Nature can really impact on our lives," Mr Hogan said. He added that Irish Water was "well ahead of the curve in managing the water crisis. The wild land fires were also a huge issue for us. And there were water safety issues and we had to ensure lifeguards were on duty for extended hours.

"There were environmental issues with water courses running low with dangers of fish kills. A highlight was seeing how people supported each other throughout both weather crises and the wonderful community spirit that existed," he said.

ESB spokesman Paul Hand said staff responded well to the power outages caused by Storm Emma and Storm Ali.

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