It’s fifty-five years ago to the day – Friday the 16th of February 1962 – that the Sheffield gale occurred. This was the synoptic situation on the morning of the Sheffield Gale (fig 1). I recreated the chart by scanning in the SYNOP observations from the Daily Weather Report [DWR] that you can freely download from the Met Office, a truly wonderful resource. To unlock the SYNOP observations that are in the DWR, I had to carefully scan the text using some OCR software to breathe some life back into these lines of numbers. That will only give you 52 weather reports, which isn’t that many, and you have to cater for the fact that the location of quite a few of them will be missing because they closed many years ago. Just 52 observations around the UK won’t give you the bigger picture, so I had to use NCEP reanalysis data to provide a background field of MSLP values. This is the plotted chart in a bit more detail (fig 2), and as you can see the nearest station to Sheffield is Finningley which at 06 UTC was reporting a only reporting a mean of 18 knots. The one thing you will notice from the chart is that there are no reported gusts plotted, that’s because back then there weren’t the fancy 9 groups that we use nowadays. If I remember correctly, back then a gust of in knots was tagged onto the end of the SYNOP and reported as GST35=, so the gust just didn’t get included in the DWR which is a great pity.
Here are a couple of newspaper clippings from the time.
Usually the Geophysical Memoirs published by the Met Office are on the whole quite bland affairs, but surprisingly memoir number 108 isn’t. Geophysical Memoirs No. 108 is entitled ‘Gales in Yorkshire in February 1962‘ and is edited by C. J. M. Aanensen. The title is a little bit ambiguous as far as titles go, because the gales did extend a little further south into Derbyshire, and further north into Durham and Northumberland, but the city of Sheffield was far by worst affected. The report itself is very comprehensive and readable, and is now free to download from the Met Office Library.
Here’s the trace from the Dines pressure-tube anemograph at Weston Park Museum in Sheffield. Digressing a little at this point, I always regret not buying that very same anemograph when they came to scrap it in 1980, but at the time I was on strike from British Steel and living off what little savings we had, so I couldn’t justify the few hundred pounds that it probably would have taken – Oh dear, how sad, nevermind. I was always fascinated by that anemograph whenever I visited the Weston Park museum as a child, that and the bee hive, which had one side of glass so that you could see the bee’s at work, were the two best things in there.
The highest gust of 84 knots (96.7 mph) occurred at about 0610 UTC from around 280° (fig 6). The chart that they include in the report for UTC (fig 7) is refreshingly similar to the one that I concocted in figure 1.
Why was it so windy?
Well as the report concludes:
The gale of 16 February 1962 was not an outstanding gale when its effects over the country as a whole are considered. However it was noteworthy in that the wind speeds generally to the lee of the Pennines were comparable with those on the Lancashire and Cheshire coasts. In the latter areas there was little damage because buildings there are constructed to withstand gales of such magnitude, which are not infrequent in these coastal areas. To the lee of the Pennines however gales of such magnitude are infrequent and buildings are often constructed to a lighter scale. Consequently when such gales do occur the damage may be very great, as it was in the Sheffield-Leeds area.
Consideration of the temperature and wind structure in the upper air shows that according to modern theory lee waves were possible on 16 February. The outstanding features of the upper air were:
(i) a marked and persistent inversion at a low level, and
(ii) a constant wind direction (290 degrees) in the vertical with a marked increase in speed with height.
If you’ve read the report you may have noticed that it doesn’t like to jump to any rash conclusions, when it says that according to the theory of the time “lee waves were possible”. They certainly were lee waves present, and earlier in the same report they had evidence that they were:
The occurrence of strong lee waves on 16 February 1962 was confirmed by Captain R. H. Ayres, the pilot of a B.K.S. Bristol Freighter aircraft which flew from Cambridge (1035 GMT) to Dublin (1355 GMT) on a track crossing the southern Pennines a little south of Sheffield. Because of the strong head winds the flight occupied 3 hours 20 minutes instead of the usual 2 hours. Although the aircraft was made to dive through the up-currents and climb at maximum power through the down-currents, the vertical currents were so strong (estimated 2000 feet per minute) that the pilot was unable to maintain his nominal height of 8000 feet and was obliged to inform Air Traffic Control of this. During these manoeuvres the aircraft’s airspeed varied over the range 80 to 175 knots. Captain Ayres reported that the sky was covered with an impressive display of wave clouds.
They even did the maths and even produced streamlines across the Pennines for the day in question (fig 8). Earlier in the report they did hit upon the answer as far as I can see. It was all to do with the strength and direction of the gradient (geostrophic wind of ~100 knots), the temperature gradient and inversion in the lower atmosphere, associated with a cold front that was racing across the country.
The mechanism by which this occurred is obscure. However, as will be seen later, the severity of the gales at Sheffield is thought to be partly due to the lee-wave effect and the persistence of the marked inversion at a relatively low height is therefore of interest. Had the cold front been a normal one the inversion would have risen fairly sharply after the cold-front passage and the period of severity of the storm at Sheffield would have been considerably lessened.
How much damage was there in Sheffield?
This is how the report summarised the damage to the City of Sheffield from the gale.
Final analysis of damage.—The severity of the gale in the Sheffield area can be judged from the following final analysis of damage to dwellings:
(i) Number of buildings damaged beyond repair—98, including 69 prefabricated buildings.
(ii) Number of dwellings severely damaged with major repairs required—248.
(iii) Number of dwellings moderately damaged—34,200.
(iv) Number of dwellings with minor damage—66,954.
(v) Total number of dwellings damaged in one way or another—101,500.
(vi) Total number of dwellings in the area—161,000.
Personal memory of the gale
I still remember being awakened by the howling wind early that Friday, and as I was getting dressed for School, hearing the sound of the slab that sat on the top of our chimney, being flipped up, and the noise as it slid down our tiled roof, before crashing into the cast iron gutter and ending up in the front garden next to our TV aerial.
- There is no specific Wiki article on what I think of as the ‘Sheffield’ Gale, which is surprising. Although three people were killed and around 250 injured in the gale in this country, the storm did go on to cause even more havoc on the other side of the North Sea. It occurred at the same time as high spring tides, and a huge storm surge breached the dykes in West Germany, drowning 315 people. In Europe the storm was known as Vincinette.
- Philip Eden did write a short article about the Sheffield Gale for the Royal Meteorological Society.
- I can’t find any mention of it in the Met Magazine during 1962 although there was a very interesting article about ‘The problem of day-darkness over London’ in the December edition – fascinating.
- The Weather Magazine also seems devoid of anything about the Sheffield Gale or the storm surge that killed 315 people in West Germany. The Weather log for February 1962 does include a line about it, which I think sums up quite nicely the north-south divide that existed back then.
It might come to a bit of a shock to whoever wrote that Weather Log back in March 1962, that the ‘town‘ as he or she so quaintly puts it, was in fact a city, and had been a city since 1893, and with a population (in 1961) of 574,915 it was the 5th largest City by population in the UK if memory serves. I don’t know why there was so little written about it surprises me because Sheffield has always been the poor relation, perhaps it’s the Geography and where it lies, but more probably it was, and is still down to money.
To be fair, perhaps the Weather Magazine and the Met Mag didn’t bother including articles about the gale because it had been so well covered in the Geophysical Memoirs, I personally don’t believe that for one minute, because that report didn’t appear very quickly, and the one I’ve downloaded wasn’t received at the Met Office in Edinburgh till the end of 1964. But it’s good to see that they didn’t miss the finer details of the events concerning the ‘Great Storm’ of October 1987 though.
Finally here is a map of maximum gusts in knots (reduced to 33 feet above the ground) for the UK on that day (fig 11). I think it would have just about merited being a named storm event if it happened today!
There were two interesting things that I did read in the report:
- How many RAF stations didn’t have an anemograph back in 1962, and had to use the dial to get a ten minute mean direction and speed. How the hell do you get a ten minute mean in a gale like that? Well there is there is of course the obvious one, you make yourself a nice cup of tea, you position your chair just right and keep a beady eye on the dials for ten minutes, ignoring all phone calls and the flight crew that’s just walked into the office!
- The other thing was that gales produced by the “resonant lee wave effect” will happen again (~150 years), and have also happened before and been overlooked. They mention two specific dates that show strong similarities to the 16th December 1962, event, one on the 22nd of December 1894, and a more recent one between the 1st and 2nd of March 1956.