Ophelia : The life and death of a hurricane

Figure 1 – Provisional track from NHC and Met Office

Ophelia was born on the 9th of October as a tropical depression at 09 UTC in the mid-Atlantic somewhere to the southeast of the Azores. Her early days were spent meandering around the place of her birth, at times it almost appeared that she was going around in circles. Then suddenly one day her life found a new direction, and she decided to head off and take a swipe at the British Isles, so off she went tracking ever more faster each day in a northeasterly direction. She made good progress, and before long she surprised every on by becoming a category 3 major hurricane! She had become the furthest east major hurricane in the satellite era! But then rather unexpectedly (to some people’s mind’s at least) and just as she was closing in on her intended target, someone called (Ice) Berg in America decided that her life as a hurricane was at an end, and he declared her a post-tropical cyclone! Not to be outdone she put on an extra spurt and deepened from 971 to 958 hPa to show them she was not finished quite yet. The rest as they say is history…

Figure 2


For the purists out there that say that hurricanes can only survive in oceans with a SST of around 79 °F (26 °C) or more, how did Ophelia manage to steadily intensify from a category 1 to a category 3 major hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean during on the 14th of October southeast of the Azores, with SST that were much colder (fig 2), between only 22°C and 24°C?

Please don’t bother replying with comments about how “the large temperature contrast between the abnormally warm seawater and the extremely cold temperatures in the upper atmosphere” providing instability for Ophelia’s thunderstorms “which allowed the storm to continue strengthening” because I simply won’t’ believe you!

If Ophelia can intensify over cooler waters like she did, then there is no reason not to accept that the NHC killed Ophelia off around 12 hours too soon, I think she survived till at least 09 UTC on the 16th of October and close to 51° north. She might have looked pretty crappy in the visible images as she approached Ireland  early on Monday but her inner core winds that had driven her down to 951 hPa were still spinning.

FAAM and its relationship with the Met Office

Why wasn’t it possible for the Chief forecaster at the Met Office to call on the services of the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements [FAMM] and get them to fly their modified BAe 146-301 large Atmospheric Research Aircraft [ARA] to the Azores on Saturday afternoon and back again during Sunday, drop a couple of dropsondes into the eye of Ophelia, and run their fancy array of sensors over her?

All their findings could have been passed onto the NHC and fed directly into the NWP models around the world to get a better fix and track on Ophelia during the next 24 hours, all excellent meteorological research.

How come the Americans can afford to send a hurricane hunter out every six hours to investigate a tropical cyclone whenever an island in the Caribbean or the coastline of America is threatened, and yet when the tail end of a hurricane threatens our shores, we just curl up with a good book and issue a couple of warnings?

Of course it may have been that they did ask them, but maybe they were just too busy investigating stratocumulus, volcanic ash or contrails, and just couldn’t find the time for a jolly to the Azores.

When I was an assistant at Kinloss we had installed a boundary layer sonde [BLS] system from Vaisala, as did a number of other RAF stations across the UK. And when there was anything interesting going on meteorologically, we would fill up a balloon with helium, attach a small package of sensors to it, and throw it into the air. The rest was more or less automatic, a radio receiver attached to a PC processed the upper air data into a regular WMO TEMP message.

What I’m rather long-windedly trying to suggest, is that back then we realised the importance of good observational data, even when we had an excellent upper air network, something we don’t have these days. We don’t launch radiosondes from Weather Ships, we don’t even launch them from Stornoway, Shanwell or Hemsby these days, so why can’t we very occasionally just use something that we do have. I know the FAAM aircraft is primarily for research, but for exceptional hurricanes like Ophelia surely this could have been waived. As far as I know not a single aircraft from either Portugal, Spain, France, the UK or Ireland went out to take a look at Ophelia, surely the air force of one of these countries could have?

Just a ‘normal low pressure system’ says Chris Fawkes

I’m personally fed up to the back teeth of being told by weather presenter after weather presenter that Ophelia was now no longer a hurricane, and as Chris Fawkes so eloquently put it yesterday “is just a normal low pressure system”. Many of us don’t need this constantly rammed down our throats, or the 50 second video of Tomasz Schafernaker waving his arms about like some born again Magnus Pyke describing how a hurricane is formed and what powers them, because we already very well what the latest theories are.

Ophelia wind speed analysis

The highest gust that occurred between 00 UTC on Monday and 07 UTC this morning from Ophelia was 96 mph at Roches Point on the south coast of Ireland, and occurred at 11 UTC (fig 1).

Figure 1

And just for completeness here are all the low-level stations that reported storm force gusts at anytime during that same period (fig 2).

Figure 2

On the face of it the warnings issued for the winds from ex-hurricane Ophelia look like they did there job, and that although three people died in Ireland, the warning saved many more, and that might well be true. But what about the accuracy of the warnings issued by both Met Eireann and the Met Office?

Met Eireann

If you remember Met Eireann amended their status Red and Amber warnings at around 9 am on Monday morning. They jumped the highest gusts expected from 80 mph to 93 mph, and extended the status Red to cover the entire country. If we look at the maximum gusts across Ireland in more detail (fig 3) you will see that the first warning they issued on Saturday for maximum gusts to 80 mph would have sufficed for all stations bar Roches Point, even across the north of Ireland all the gusts from the observing network were within the range of 50 to 80 mph stipulated in the original warning. The one thing that was wrong with Saturdays warning is that it didn’t single out the south coast as particularly vulnerable to the storm force southerly winds from Ophelia, especially the county of Cork which saw the highest gusts in excess of 90 mph. I’m not going to say whether the status red for the entire country was not warranted because I would likely put my foot right in it.

Figure 3

Met Office

Lets remind ourselves what the Met Office were warning us about as regards strong winds from Ophelia for the 16th in the UK.

Figure 4

Well as we’ve seen already the highest gust across Northern Ireland was 63 mph and did fall in the 55-65 mph range mentioned in the warning, but gusts in the range 65 to 75 mph or even 80 never occurred. And there lies the rub, because it’s never entirely clear from any warning issued by the Met Office what limits they use for yellow, amber or red warnings, and the reason why they don’t specify them is because it makes them impossible to verify. There is little doubt that the core of the strongest wind was along the south coast of Ireland, and up through the Irish Sea, in fact three stations in the northwest of Wales reported gusts of higher than 80 mph, and two of those, Aberdaron and Capel Curig reported gusts of 90 mph.

Figure 5

So using gusts of 70 mph or more as the basis for delineating the area of an amber warning, what should the area have looked like for the UK? Well on the basis of the wind speeds from the SYNOP stations it certainly wouldn’t have covered Northern Ireland, but instead stretched in an arc from Islay in the north down the Irish Sea possibly as far down as South Wales in the south (fig 6).

Figure 6

Looking back at the graphic from the NHC from Friday which shows the wind speed probabilities for Monday it shows look remarkably accurate. If the axis of the core of strongest winds had been aligned a little bit further east then it would have been spot on (fig 7). Perhaps we ought to leave it to the NHC to issue the warnings the next time a ex-hurricane heads our way.

Figure 7 – Courtesy of the NHC

Capel Curig hits 90 mph in gust

Figure 1

Gusts to 90 mph at Capel Curig in the last hour, and another at Aberdaron to 84 mph (fig 1). The table of mean wind speeds make interesting reading, quite a number of inland stations running a full gale especially across Northern Ireland, but Mumbles Head tops the lot, with a 64 mph storm force 11 mean wind speed at 16 UTC (fig 2), why can’t the BBC send a weather presenter there? I’ve seen a very poor selection of on-the-spot-reports across Ireland and western parts of the UK for today.

Figure 2

That’s torn it – a gust to 90 mph at Aberdaron

Figure 1

That’s torn it, there have been gusts higher than the 80 mph upper limit in the Met Office’s amber alert, but if we keep quiet and don’t mention it, they might just get away with it. The stations in question are Valley with a gust to 81 mph at 15 UTC, and Aberdaron with a gust of 90 mph, you just knew somehow that the upper limit of 80 mph was going to be exceeded, especially with a ferocious southwesterly 75 knot gradient (and I’m guessing here) running straight up the Irish Sea. I can’t see them upping their existing amber warning, although you never know.

Ophelia 14 UTC résumé

Figure 1

A quick résumé of the winds so far today from storm Ophelia (fig 1), the gust to 96 mph at Roches Point at 11 UTC remain the highest so far. It’s interesting to note, that apart from the winds from Roches Point, all the extremes gusts have remained below 80 mph. Winds are now peaking across the west and north of Wales at the moment (fig 2), so far they have been within the limits given in the amber warning.

Figure 2

Met Éireann up the status red warning for the entire country

Figure 1 – Courtesy of Met Éireann

I suspected that Met Éireann had limited the area of the status red warning that they had issued on Saturday. I just wondered how much they had been swayed by guidance from the UKMO, and underplayed Ophelia a little. Well they’ve remedied all that now by issuing a status red wind warning for the whole country, and increased the speed of the possible maximum gusts to 75 – 93 mph.

Met Office enlarge Amber warning for strong winds

Figure 1

The Met Office have just enlarged the area of their Amber warning for ‘strong’ winds. I bet they’re getting a bit twitchy down there at the appropriately named FitzRoy Road in Exeter this morning. The medium level AS & AC cloud has still got that stormy yellowish look about it here in mid-Devon at the moment, very unusual, I’ll have to stop blogging and get snapping before I miss it.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

As expected the Met Office have updated their yellow advisory they issued on Friday, with a yellow and amber warning for Monday and Tuesday for strong winds from Ophelia. As expected they have dovetailed their warning to fit in with those issued by Met Éireann yesterday, that is they’ve gone for the rarely used ploy of gusts 55-65 mph with some to 70-80 mph. Why not just make it 55-80 mph, or even more simply, gusts as high as 80 mph?

Figure 1

I can only think that from reading the line in the warning which says…

“… with 70-80 mph gusts in the far southeast.”

…is that they mean that the strongest gusts across Northern Ireland of 70-80 mph gusts will be in counties Armagh and Down (fig 2). This will occur in the gale force southerlies to the west, as Ophelia tracks north-northeast across Galway, which implies that they have 100% confidence in the models handling of Ophelia’s final track, which seems very trusting even at T+24, why not just leave the “in the far southeast bit” out?

Likewise, the mention of a…

“smaller area of gusty winds is then likely to run across Northern Ireland from the west with 65-75 mph gusts possible for a short period of time”

… seem even more pedantic. Who the hell is going to be able to differentiate between a southerly gust of 70-80 mph from a westerly gust of 65-75 mph just a little while later? I’m not saying that any veer isn’t important, but the Met Office don’t specify a wind direction or a mean wind speed in their strong wind warnings, unlike Met Éireann, which to me is the only way to measure the true strength of the wind.

Image 2 – Courtesy of Wikipedia

Perhaps they don’t bother to mention specific directions because we all have an innate ability to know from which direction the wind is blowing, like Bob Dylan said – You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Ophelia at T+36

Figure 1 – Courtesy of Wikipedia

This is the only decent visible satellite image that I can find from yesterday of Ophelia as category 3 Hurricane (fig 1). The Met Office of course remain aloof from all the fuss about Ophelia, acting like they don’t have any access at all to high quality satellite imagery, because why on earth would anyone be interested?

What a perfect combination the UKMO and EUMETSAT, just throw in the WMO and you have the perfect triumvirate of ineptitude.

Why is it that I can view any of these types of satellite images or movie loops for the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Western Atlantic courtesy of the Americans:

  • Visible
  • IR
  • IR AVN
  • IR Dvorak
  • IR enhanced
  • IR JSL
  • IR RGB
  • IR Funktop
  • IR rainbow
  • Water vapour

But as soon as a hurricane gets any further east than 35° west, we immediately revert to the dark ages. It would be nice to think that Brexit would change all of this, but it’s for certain that the Met Office will sail on into the sunset oblivious to it all as if nothing really matters.

Figure 2 – Courtesy of Intellicast

Ophelia passed to the south and the east of the Azores overnight as a category 2 hurricane. She is racing northeast at 30 knots, and is expected to turn more north-northeast today (fig 2), because if she doesn’t then watch out Bognor!

Figure 3

There’s a remarkable degree of similarity between the T+36 forecasts from the GFS and UKMO models for 12 UTC on Monday this morning (fig 3). The centre of Ophelia is slightly (~1°) further northeast in the GFS solution than the UKMO, this is probably to do with a slightly faster solution rather than a difference in track I would have thought. The centre of Ophelia is at 972 hPa in the GFS and down at 965 hPa in the UKMO, this may be due to the OGIMET contouring or the resolution of the GFS model they are using, I’m sure the Met Office track the centre of vortices in their models, rather than rely on a fixed grid of MSLP values as the GFS does. The isobars are very tight around the centre of Ophelia, which does mean that you would have to reduce the geostrophic wind quite a bit because of the tight curvature of Ophelia to get the true gradient.

No change in the warnings, either from Met Éireann or the Met Office this morning, although I would expect that they will be tweaked by Exeter this morning,. No mention yet of a yellow warning for heavy rain yet either, although Ophelia is moving through very quickly, the models do indicate a shield of heavy rain lying to the west and northwest of the centre.

The irony of this event occurring 30 years after the ‘great’ storm, is that unlike 1987, the southeast are best placed to get away with quite a warm breezy day, with little in the way of rain compared to places further west and north.

Met Éireann playing it cool with Ophelia

Figure 1

It’s interesting to see the differing approaches to the NWP forecast concerning Ophelia (fig 1), between the Irish National Meteorological Service, Met Éireann and the UK Met Office. As you probably know the Met Office have already issued an advanced yellow warning for strong wind for western parts of the UK, on their website Met Éireann have placed this small message (fig 2) about what their plans are – although I have noticed they do have an advisory out for Monday.

Figure 2 – Courtesy of Met Éireann

The NHC are in no doubt where Ophelia is heading and any possible impacts (fig 3):

Figure 3 – Courtesy of the NHC

And here’s some free advice from forecaster Berg (known to his friends as Ice) at the National Hurricane Center for everyone in Ireland and the United Kingdom regarding Ophelia (fig 4).

Figure 4 – Courtesy of the NHC

So Met Éireann and the UK Met Office, you can’t say that you haven’t been warned!

The latest forecast (T+84) for Monday from the Met Office looks like this (fig 5).

Figure 5 – Courtesy of the Met Office

On the basis of this evidence, I think if I were the Chief Forecaster at Met Éireann, I would issue a red status for Monday pretty sharpish, because after reading reports of the damage caused by hurricane Debbie in 1961 across Ireland, Ophelia has the same potential, and even if Ophelia tracks further west, it will still be a very windy day with coastal gales across Ireland. Of course there’s still plenty of time to inform the public, even if they leave it as late as Saturday or even Sunday to issue warnings, the message would still be heard thanks to the Internet and social media. So maybe they want to see the white of Ophelia’s eyes before they spring into action, but I wonder just how the Governor of Florida might react if he saw Ophelia heading towards Florida?