A powerful storm that swept through Ireland and the UK more than a century ago produced some of the strongest winds the British Isles have ever seen.
Scientists revised 1903 Storm Ulysses by digitizing paper weather readings from the time and subjecting them to modern reanalysis.
Many places would have heard gusts exceeding 45 m/s (100 mph or 87 knots).
The cyclone left a trail of death, shipwrecks, destroyed infrastructure, uprooted trees and widespread flooding.
“We think it is likely that winds were stronger in some locations than anywhere else in the modern period 1950-2015,” explained Prof. Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading and the National Center for Atmospheric Science.
“The precise values are a bit uncertain as the reanalysis does not produce surface gust values but they would have been high enough to cause the damage we see in photos from the time – on par with the major storms of 1990, 1997, 1998 and the Great Storm of 1987,” he told the BBC.
The Ulysses Tempest is so called because it inspired a passage from James Joyce’s famous novel Ulysses.
Oh yeah, JJ O’Molloy enthused. Lady Dudley was walking home across the park to see all the trees felled by that cyclone last year and she thought of buying a view of Dublin.
The windstorm hit the British Isles between February 26 and 27. Its trail passed through Ireland, Northern England and Scotland.
The Times newspaper reported widespread damage, a substantial number of injuries and fatalities.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) reported 10 significant crew rescues from vessels in distress. A pier in Morecambe was damaged and a train in Cumbria was blown up.
Odysseus’ ferocity was well recognized at the time. But by reanalyzing raw weather observations from 1903, using the latest modern numerical modeling techniques such as those that produce today’s daily forecast, the researchers have now gained a new and more detailed appreciation of the event.
The study was made possible by an army of volunteers converting handwritten documents from 1903 into a spreadsheet format that could be plugged into a 21st-century supercomputer.
The records – mainly from the UK Met Office’s ‘Daily Weather Reports’ – included measurements of pressure, temperature, wind speed, sunshine and precipitation, and were taken at selected sites in the British Isles and mainland Europe.
Atmospheric pressure is the key parameter for a modern event simulation.
‘By retrieving these observations and integrating them into our modern methods of making reconstructions, we can build a picture of the atmosphere and how it was behaving at the time,’ said Prof. Hawkins. “And it looks very believable. It has simulated winds in the reconstruction that could have caused the damage we see from the documentary evidence and photographs.”
A good example is the River Leven in Cumbria where the train overturned while crossing a viaduct. The simulation indicates that there would have been winds above 40 m/s (90 mph or 78 knots) at that location on the morning of the 27th.
The weather can always produce abnormal conditions in specific locations, but when the British Isles region is considered as a whole, the reanalysis places Storm Ulysses in the top five strongest wind events.
Scientists say mining old weather data is a vital undertaking if we are to understand how our climate is changing.
It is only with dense historical data that we can put modern weather extremes into their proper context and see the full range of possibilities for the future.
The difficulty is giving computers access to this information, some of which is centuries old.
There are thought to be billions of handwritten data points in weather archives around the world waiting to be transcribed.
Volunteers working on “citizen science” platforms like Zooniverse have chipped away at the problem, but it will take an immense effort to recover the entire resource.
What is the UK’s record-breaking strongest wind gust?
Reading colleague Dr Stephen Burt says: ‘There are always some caveats to higher gusts, the two main difficulties being, firstly, that the instruments are working to the limit of their capacity; and, secondly, obviously, that most of these documents come from highly exposed sites, but it is debatable how representative these documents are.
“But caveats aside, the highest low-level UK gust for which there is at least a reasonable balance of probability is 118 knots (61m/s) at Kirkwall, Orkney at 0912 GMT on 7 February 1969.” That’s 136 mph.
Professor Hawkins and colleagues report their reanalysis of Storm Ulysses in the journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences.
The Reading researcher will also present the project this week at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna, Austria.