Met Éireann records show recent storm not the biggest

‘Worst’ storm for windspeed and damage most likely ‘the big wind of 1839’

A car stuck in the floodwaters of Hurricane Charlie in 1986

A car stuck in the floodwaters of Hurricane Charlie in 1986

Fri, Feb 14, 2014, 01:00

Met Éireann said its forecasters have had a busy few days – both in terms of weather forecasting and media requests for details of the biggest, wettest or “the worst” storm.

While many people cite the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Charlie when it struck in August 1986, that was a “rain event” with damage caused by water, and doesn’t feature in a list of record winds. When Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan said Wednesday night’s storm was among the five worst storms to be recorded in Ireland, the statistics show he was probably talking about wind events.

The highest ranking wind events in recent years were on St Stephen’s Day, 1998, when gusts reached 178km/h. Earlier that year winds in February gusted up to 172km/h per hour.

February is usually a windy month. Winds in February 1990 gusted up to 150km/h, while on Wednesday night they rose again to gust at 160km/h as recorded in Shannon, Co Clare. But in terms of loss of life the worst wind in recent decades was on January 5th, 1991, when 14 people lost their lives – some seven of them when a tree fell on a minibus in which they were travelling near Portumna, Co Galway.

Met Éireann chief forecaster Gerald Fleming said the difficulty in classifying “worst” weather events was how they were defined, whether wet or windy, or loss of life and property, or even the value of the damage caused.

Record keeping in Ireland is also a relatively modern phenomenon with some stations gathering data for less than 50 years.

‘Worst storm’
However, Mr Fleming said it was possible to estimate that one of the “worst” storms of all time was that over the night of January 6th to 7th, 1839, “the night of the big wind” .

While the technology was not there to measure winds the way they are now calculated, Mr Fleming said it was possible to work backwards from the damage and deaths caused.

In all the big wind caused the loss of an estimated several hundred lives with 20 to 25 per cent of houses in Dublin being damaged. A total of 42 ships were wrecked as the storm attained a very low barometric pressure of 918 hectopascals and tracked eastwards to the north of Ireland.

Wind speeds were calculated at about 185km/h and while winds have come very close to that – particularly Hurricane Debbie in 1961, which recorded gusts of 181km/h – homes, properties, roads and many harbours tend to be sturdier than in pre-Famine times.