Back to back storms have battered the UK and Ireland this winter – here’s why.
Britain barely had time to catch its breath before Storm Jocelyn hit this week, becoming the 10th named storm of the season.
Jocelyn struck the UK yesterday, continuing today (24 January) with wind speeds of up to 156 kph and road and rail disruption across the country.
It arrived just a day after Storm Isha blew out, causing travel chaos and the deaths of at least two people in Scotland and Northern Ireland when their cars crashed into fallen trees.
The bout of extreme weather has left many people wondering whether climate change is to blame.
“This is the furthest through the list we have ever been at this stage,” a Met Office weather service spokesperson confirmed to Euronews Green. But since storms only started being named in 2015, “it’s not a great way of measuring climate change impacts.”
“It’s quite a complex issue and not quite as simple as [the] increasing frequency of heatwaves in the UK as a result of human-induced climate change,” they add.
If you’ve been caught up in the storms across the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands this week and are wondering why, here’s what you need to know.
Is climate change causing more UK storms?
“This has been an extraordinary wind season,” Clare Nasir, a senior broadcast meteorologist at the Met Office told the Associated Press (AP). “The windstorm season begins in September. So September 2023, we started to see storms brew in the Atlantic.”
“Now we’re in January, we’re up to the ninth named storm, which is quite rare.”
The average since 2015 has been six or seven storms a year. The first winter after naming began topped out at 11 with Storm Katie. The 2023/24 season could well surpass that – but it’s not so significant in the scheme of things. Winter 2013/14 was the wettest on record and the stormiest for two decades.
In the recent climate, there is no evidence of positive or negative trends in windstorm number or intensity, the Met Office says. Trends in storm numbers are difficult to detect due to how they naturally vary year-to-year and decade-to-decade.
That is set to change, according to most climate projections. Scientists predict that winter windstorms will increase slightly in number over the UK in the coming years.
Attribution studies can indicate how much more likely and intense a particular weather event was due to climate change. But windstorms don’t tend to get prioritised for this sort of scrutiny.
Why have there been so many storms this year?
The factors that cause storms to form and be maintained are complex. One of the main drivers is a powerful jet stream – a core of strong winds around 10 km above the Earth’s surface, blowing east to west across the Atlantic.
It is influenced by the temperature difference between the pole and the equator. In the past few weeks, bitterly cold Arctic winds have caused a big contrast, leading to a stronger jet stream.
That shapes areas of low and high pressure nearer the surface which translate into stormy weather.
The El Niño weather phenomenon is also having an impact, meteorologists say, as it did in 2014 to 2016 when the UK experienced so many storms.
Warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the Pacific brought by El Niño have knock-on impacts across the world. In northern Europe, it typically brings wetter and windier weather at the start of winter before temperatures drop towards the end.
The relationship between this naturally occurring climate phase and the climate crisis is a subject of ongoing scientific research. But scientists are clear that the impacts of each El Niño are getting ever stronger as the climate warms – meaning more extreme weather.
Is climate change making UK storms worse?
As with frequency, meteorologists are cautious about stating unequivocally that windstorms are getting stronger as a result of rising temperatures.
But it’s clear that climate change is making storms more impactful in various ways.
For one thing, the crisis is influencing the increased rainfall seen in extreme events – like Storm Ciarán in November.
“The reason being is due to every 1 degree of warming we experience, the atmosphere is able to hold 7 per cent more water vapour and therefore we see an increased chance of heavy rainfall associated with rainfall events,” Dr Melissa Lazenby, a lecturer in climate change at the University of Sussex, explained.
Windstorm impacts from storm surges and high waves in coastal areas are also set to worsen as sea levels rise.
And here’s what experts say about intensity. “When we see a storm, it’s likely to be more intense because there’s more energy in the atmosphere,” says the Met Office’s Nasir. “We know that the Earth is warming up, and that’s heat energy. And that heat energy translates into the atmosphere in lots of different ways, including storminess.”
“Climate change is warming both our oceans and our atmosphere, providing more fuel for storms to form and intensify, resulting in heavier downpours,” Ben Clarke, a researcher for World Weather Attribution at Imperial College London, previously told us.
How are northern European storms named?
Storm names are decided by the Met Office, Ireland’s Met Éireann and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), who work together to track weather events across northern Europe.
Storms are named alphabetically avoiding the letters Q, U, X, Y or Z to conform with international standards. The names come from the list published at the start of each season in September, which usually alternates between male and female options.
The public can submit names, and some were also chosen by the agency in honour of esteemed weather experts and scientists.
Who is Storm Jocelyn named after?
Storm Jocelyn was added by Met Éireann after famous physicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell – an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland who discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967.
Kathleen is the next name on the list, another Irish submission in reference to two women: Kathleen McNulty and Kathleen Lonsdale, a computer programmer and crystallographer respectively.
It could be a little while before their storm namesake appears though, as forecasters are currently predicting calmer weather patterns for the start of February.
Why are storms named?
“Naming storms helps to ease communication of severe weather and provides clarity when people could be impacted by the weather,” Met Office head of situational awareness Will Lang explained.
There is no strict set of criteria that the trio of agencies apply to name a storm. They take into account the potential impact of a storm system – assessing whether it could cause flooding, for example.
And as the meteorologists peer into a stormier future, they’re clear that broader climate adaptation is needed too.
“The message is we’ve got to start future-proofing, basically because this is not going to go away in terms of whether it’s extreme in one sense or another,” says Nasir. “We’re in a different landscape to what we were 30 years ago.”
Source: Euro News