The UK’s most severe weather events from the Great Smog to Hurricane Ophelia

The UK may have a reputation for rainy summers and absent sunshine – but it’s not a place usually associated with dramatic weather.

However, over the last half a century Brits have experienced a plethora of severe storms, scorching temperatures and deadly floods.

As heavy snow is expected to return to the UK just in time for winter, we’ve taken a look back at some of the most dramatic weather events to hit the nation.

The Great Smog – 1952

Dubbed as one of the most severe air pollution events to ever affect the capital, The Great Smog hit London in December of 1952.

Lasting four days before clearing, a thick layer of smog smothered the city – making visibility dangerously low.

In fact, around 4,000 people died as a result of the “pea-souper” and 100,000 more were made ill by the event. According to the Met Office, the smoke-like pollution was so toxic it was alleged to have choked cows to death in the fields.

The Great Smog of 1952 may seem more like a pollution issue than a weather event – but it’s actually a combination of both.

Winter had gotten off to a very cold start with plunging temperatures and snowfalls across the region. So, in a bid to keep warm and avoid frostbite, the people of London naturally lit their coal fires to stay toastie.

Usually, this wouldn’t cause an issue as smoke rises into the atmosphere where it disperses. However, an anticyclone, ie. an area of high atmospheric pressure where the air is sinking, was hanging over London.

As a result, the warm smoke leaving the chimneys, as well as all of the pollutants pumping out of factories, got trapped – creating the ideal conditions for radiation fog.

Britain’s first sting jet – 1987

A sting jet is basically a small area of very intense winds. Now, we’re not talking about those blustery days where you have to hold your brolly from popping out, or your hat flying away. Sting jets are usually winds that exceed 100mph.

Britain’s first officially-documented experience with the phenomenon occurred in October of 1987 and has been classed as one of the most damaging events to impact parts of the UK.

Southeast England was battered with winds reaching a staggering 115mph – reportedly killing at least 22 people and knocking over millions of trees.

The then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd went as far as describing the sting jet as “the worst night since the Blitz”.

Scientists have since warned that the number of storms with exceptional wind speeds, like Britain’s first sting jet may hit the UK, may double if global warming continues to accelerate.

Burns Day Storm – 1990

Similar wind speeds to the sting jet were recorded on January 25 in 1990.

However, the Burns Day Storm affected a significantly larger area than the 1987 disaster – sweeping across southern Scotland and creating severe gales across many parts of Wales and England.

Millions were left without electricity as the hurricane wind wreaked havoc on power supplies and phone lines – and fallen trees caused major disruptions to public transport and roads.

Commonly referred to as Cyclone Daria, the Burns Day Storm also killed more than double the number of people than the sting jet that came three years before as it struck during daytime hours when millions were going about their day-to-day business.

After raging through the UK, the violent storm, which began as a cold front over the Northern Atlantic Ocean, tracked east towards Denmarks and caused more deaths across Europe, including the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as floods in Germany.

The hottest day in history – 2003

Brits moan when it’s not sunny and then moan even more when it is. But the heatwave of 2003 was unbearable for even the most dedicated sun-worshipper.

In Kent, recorded temperatures hit a stifling 38.5°C on August 10 – which remains a record-high to this day. And Brits weren’t the only ones sweltering that summer – with many European countries affected by the lack of rain and record-breaking temperatures.

And while that temperature may not seem alarmingly high for some countries – the August heatwave was actually associated with a large short-term increase in mortality, particularly in London.

Environmental think tank The Earth Policy Institution (EPI) actually claim that 35,000 people died as a result of the Europe sizzle – and warns that such deaths are likely to increase.

“Though heat waves rarely are given adequate attention, they claim more lives each year than floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes combined,” the EPI said. “Heatwaves are a silent killer, mostly affecting the elderly, the very young, or the chronically ill”.

Boscastle flood – 2004

Nestled on the north coast of Cornwall, England, the small village of Boscastle was savaged by a catastrophic flood on August 16 in 2004.

It started with heavy rainfall – more than 75mm in two hours to be precise – which consequently resulted in two river banks (Valency and Jordan) bursting.

According to the BBC, this resulted in around two billion litres of water gushing into Boscastle – causing thousands of pounds worth of damage and sending residents into a frenzy.

Cars were swept to sea, trees uprooted and buildings were damaged. However, nobody was killed and the village received a hefty donation from Prince Charles, the Duke of Cornwall, to help rebuild the area.

£4.5 million has since been spent on a flood defence scheme – which includes making the river channel wider and deeper to be able to hold more water.

Storm Kyrill – 2007

Cyclone Kyrill was a low-pressure area that rapidly developed into a surprisingly violent windstorm that battered Europe. It originated in North America on January 15 and travelled across the Atlantic, hitting Ireland and England just two days later.

Hurricane winds with gusts of up to a shocking 160mph then moved eastwards towards Poland and the Baltic sea – even managing to reach parts of Russia.

An estimated 25,000 homes in England suffered power outages after pylons were damaged from the wind, and nearly 300 flights were cancelled at Heathrow Airport due to health and safety concerns.

13 people in the UK loss their lives from the storm – including a two-year-old boy who received severe head injuries and died in hospital after a wall fell on him.

Across Europe, around 47 fatalities were reported, many from driving accidents caused by fallen trees or collisions.

St. Jude storm – 2013

Named after the patron saint of lost causes – St. Jude’s storm saw winds touching 99mph pound the Isle of Wight as well as parts of Wales and England.

Heavy rainfall also lashed areas of the UK on October 27 and 28 in 2013 before crossing the North sea and reaching Denmark, where wind speed resulted in a record-high of 120.8 mph.

Five people were killed from the storm – one couple losing their lives after a tree fell onto gas mains, causing an explosion. A 14-year-old boy was also swept out to sea.

In comparison to the storm of 1987 – five million fewer trees were destroyed and the total damage was nearly £1billion less. Still, the gusts caused chaos to public transport and left 850,000 homes across the country without electricity.

Hurricane Ophelia – 2017

Forming in the Atlantic Ocean itself on October 9, 2017, Storm Ophelia strengthened into a hurricane as it headed across the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal.

While it started to weaken on its journey towards the UK, it was still powerful enough to hit Ireland days later with record gusts of over 118mph recorded in Cork.

Sadly, three people in Ireland were killed from the unprecedented storm and more than 360,000 people were without power.

The arrival of Ophelia also brought Saharan dust to parts of the UK – which resulted in a hazy sepia-toned sky. Across parts of Devon, residents reported a strange burning smell which were attributed to forest fires over in Spain and Portugal.

British Isles Heatwave – 2018

June 2018 was an extremely dry month across central and southern England – with London recording little or no rain for a staggering 57 days.

It is this drought-like condition that contributed to drier soil, which can subsequently lead to increased temperatures.

Similar to the heatwave of 2003, Brits were subjected to scorching temperatures exceeding 35°C – resulting in a widespread drought, crop failures and a number of wildfires.

There were fears of over 1,000 deaths during the heatwave – and warnings from experts about how intense temperatures will become more frequent if global warming continues to accelerate.

The heatwave was also blamed for record numbers of people admitting themselves to A&E, as health bodies shed concern on how the NHS was under “severe strain”.