Monday, 12 September 2011

Weather 1 – WIND

Level crossing sign pushed over by 1987 winds

Last month, as Hurricane Irene rushed her way up the east coast of the United States of America, quite a few people put up their two-penneth on the subject of our own 1987 UK Hurricane.  There were references to over-reaction because a few tiles got shaken in the breeze, which I found troubling on two counts:
a) it seemed a bit of an attempt to belittle the very powerful forces heading towards areas of the US that were not used to them and the action taken by politicians to minimise the risk to life of their people; and
b) it seemed an attempt to re-write the story of that time. 
Now we have inherited another US storm, Katia, this morning.  All this has woken up some very strong memories from 1987 and the consequences for the landscape of Sussex and neighbouring counties.  Needless to say the damage in the US has been substantial.  The damage in Sussex in 1987 was the worst for 200 years and in many places our skylines still bear the scars.

October 16th 1987.  That was the date the winds started to pick up, but the worst was felt in the middle of the night on the 17th.  Previous days had seen unprecedented rainfalls and heavy damage to agricultural land and housing from highly publicised mud-slides.  It may be that it was a great focus on rainfall amounts that blinded weather forecasters across the region to the impending wind speeds.  The scale of the problem arose from an unforeseen jet-streak, but some sort of storm had been forecast for days.  I had friends who were enthusiastic birdwatchers and they were anticipating some ‘goodies’ to come in for the 17th.  ‘Im indoors was with them in Cornwall the morning of the 16th and only decided to come home on a whim.  He nearly got caught in a flood in Sussex when the car engine stopped, but managed to get started again and return home about 1-30am.  By this time it was obvious ‘something was up’.  Suddenly the temperature and humidity had gone up at about 10-30pm.  There was heavy condensation on the outside of the windows because of the difference between outside and in.  There was a moodiness in the air.  After about an hour and a half the wind really got up and the noise was horrific.  We lived in a converted barn at the time and the bedroom was in the roofspace.  I had work the following day and wasn’t in the mood for trouble.  After one really scary blast I was asked what I was going to do.  I said “Do?”, “I’ve got to go to work in the morning, I am not going to DO anything!”, “I refuse to panic until the roof blows off, THEN I’ll panic!”....  After hours of noises horribly like those in Key Largo, one of my favourite films, peace came just before dawn.  We overslept because the alarm didn’t go off because of course we had a powercut...  Then I panicked!

The scene of devastation that greeted me as I went out of the door was hard to believe.  It became rapidly apparent that work was not on the list of the day’s activities.  There were trees down everywhere.  Dazed neighbours were wandering around and investigating the results of the night.  It was hard to believe but many people had slept right through it all, but there were some who had some really terrifying stories.  There was a general consensus that we had been exceptionally lucky that it had happened at night, as stories of people killed or injured trying to protect their property came streaming in.

Then we started to hear the real detail of the local stories and to realise how close we had in fact been to the roof blowing off.  About twenty yards to the south of us an old and very large barn had been given a new roof only that summer.  One of the crashes in the night must have been the noise it made flying off the barn OVER the hedge and into the empty field next door.  An elderly couple had been so scared by the noise that they had gone down to their kitchen at about 4am to make a cup of tea.  Just as they got into the kitchen their chimney stack fell off, through the roof and landed right onto where they had been sleeping.  It took months for the repairs to be done.

There were lighter stories as well.  One lad in the village worked at a job he loved in Eastbourne and he was so determined to get to work that he took a chainsaw with him in the car and literally hacked his way through!  Friends of ours let their cat out at about 4am and said they realised things were bit windy when they saw him fly past the window.  Fluffed up but otherwise unharmed, he was a bit wary of the outdoors for a few days after that.

We were without power for 4 days and had no alternative form of cooking and access to Brighton or to Eastbourne was constrained by the petrol stations also being out of power so not able to let anyone have fuel.  We took our evening meals in a local pub who had a stove and were making soup for everyone who called in.

The landscape had been decimated.  The leaves from the trees had been stripped off and turned to sap that coated all windows.  Many large trees fell like elephants deprived of their tusks.  Entire woodlands were flattened, but in a bizarre pencils dropped out of pencil case way.  The whole countryside was full of upturned roots and tree plates.  It was like the aftermath of a major battle, but more battles were to be fought and in some ways are still being fought, as the clear-up started and analysis kicked in.

In Brighton, Stanmer Park was scoured as the fallen trees and all of their associated topsoil were removed to ‘tidy everything up’.  This was not the only area where the response was arguably as destructive as the winds had been, but it was the area I witnessed suffer the most.  Massive bonfires destroyed the chance of ecological renewal.  On Toy’s Hill in Kent large areas of fallen beech were cleared, to be replaced by a massive tree planting campaign a year later.  Acres of green tubes went up to protect the new trees, almost all of whom failed, shaded out by the fanatical regrowth of birch and bracken in the decimated woodland areas.  The tubes also advertised a quick meal to the local deer population, who duly chomped off the surviving viable trees.

Seminars were held on HOW the trees had suffered as much as they had.  Witness statements were taken from those who had had the courage to look out of their windows on the night of the storm.  Again and again recollections of individual trees rotating out of synch with their neighbours were recorded.  The trees appeared to have failed and fallen when their roots could cope no longer with the strain put onto them by the forces of the wind.  Some of the damage can be attributed to the saturation of the soil from the heavy rainfall for days preceding the storm, and because of the leaves still present in the canopy, making the trees more resistant to the force of the wind.

Regrowth around lime tree pollarded by 1987 storm, Buxted Park
In parkland areas whole swathes of veteran trees were felled.  This was particularly the case where the trees had outgrown their position, as with some of the very large conifers at Nyman’s Gardens.  Where the veterans were isolated oaks, the scale of the devastation was far less.  Buxted Park lost many trees and the ancient lime avenue suffered terrible damage.  Firle Park lost many of the remaining elm trees that had just about lived on from the Dutch Elm disease decimation.  Many dignified and decent trees lost limbs and crowns.  At Fontwell the pockets of woodland behind the walls disappeared in a mess of tangled fallen trunks and branches.  Many wooded skylines in the south east are still marked today by the uneven line that tells the story of trees lost and damage felt.

Phoenix growth out of fallen lime limbs, lime avenue Buxted Park
I had the emotional task of measuring all of the magnificent lime trees in the Buxted lime avenue.  Fallen or still standing, all were measured.  An avenue reputed to date from a planting in 1630 to mark the birth of the future King Charles II, a good 50 years before lime avenues were to become popular and almost certainly planted with a very distinctive stock of hybrid lime from the Netherlands, it was an incredible experience to be measuring the girth of some very gnarled and ancient trees.  It was with enormous relief that these trees have not suffered the ignominy of those fallen in Stanmer Park.  Significant in the designation of the Buxted Park Site of Special Scientific Interest, the ecological value of these trees for their insect species and their dignity meant that they were left as they were when they fell.  Now they are akin to a monument to the other fallen trees of that night.  They had been tall and magnificent trees and many fell.  Several lost their tops and remain as hollow pollards, but a huge number have developed the most amazing phoenix growth along the fallen trunks.  Some of these lie across the path of the old avenue, but many lie along the line and are creating a very distinctive line of trees in themselves.

It is now 24 years since that night.  It has become apparent that some of the large trees that appeared to survive those winds may well have suffered a great deal more than was understood until very recently.  As with the young trees rolling round and round until their roots gave out, it looks likely that many old ash trees also suffered a level of internal shattering even though they still stood.  This has become apparent in recent years, following repeat woodland surveys. 

In 1987 the UK was not used to having hurricane force windspeeds and on that night of the 16th/17th October 1987 several of the wind gauges in our region were reported to have broken at their maximum speed measurement, which did lead to some serious under-reporting of maximum gust strength.  In some areas, yes the speeds were not greater than a typical autumn storm.  In Sussex they certainly were well above that level.  As the photograph at the top of this blog shows, they were strong enough to knock sign posts onto a slant.

No comments:

Post a Comment