Snow storms and heatwaves: Met Éireann look back on the year in weather

Joan Blackburn deputy head of Forecasting at Met Éireann HQ in Glasnevin, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

From snow storms to heatwaves, it’s been quite a year for Met Éireann. Marie Toft spends a day with the team.

Just a few weeks ago I was confronted with a scene in my garden which was reminiscent of the film The Wizard of Oz when the cyclone hits Kansas.

A wooden panel in our fence had been ripped from its concrete pillars and our large trampoline was actually floating mid-air, held only by the tenuous rope that was tied to the aforementioned concrete pillar.

‘So this is Storm Diana,’ I realised as I tore outside to anchor down the fence panel and try and retrieve the air-borne trampoline.

Less than 48 hours earlier, I had been sitting in Met Éireann’s HQ in Glasnevin in Dublin as their deputy head of forecasting Joan Blackburn revealed Diana was building off the coasts of Spain and Portugal and she had us in our sights.

Twenty four hours later Met Éireann issued an Orange weather warning for the south and west and a Yellow wind warning for all counties.

Diana, Emma, Ophelia - we’ve had a year of it. 

These elegant, refined girls’ names have identified the storms that have left us battered and bruised. 

Not to mention this summer’s extraordinary heatwave that left water shortages and distraught farmers in its wake.

“The farmers have had a terrible year,” maintains Evelyn Cusack, Met Éireann’s head of forecasting. 

“The snow in March had a big impact on them, then they had the drought and water shortages.

“And then the one time of the year when they have a big day out at the Ploughing Championships, Storm Ali came along and wrecked it for them.” 

“It’s been an unprecedented year for different types of weather,” agrees Joan Blackburn, who spent a morning with me demonstrating the extraordinary amount of work that goes into our weather forecasts as we all gear up for the winter ahead.

So can we expect another Ophelia and Emma?

“They were both very unusual weather occurrences for Ireland,” explains Joan. 

“As regards Ophellia, we don’t really get hurricanes in Ireland since they’re normally only formed over warm ocean waters near the Equator.” 

Ophelia was named by the National Hurricane Centre in Miami who were keeping a very close eye on it. 

But it didn’t hit the Caribbean. It hit the waters off the coast of Africa which were warmer than normal.

According to Joan, this was exceptional and now it was headed towards us. It started to gain momentum and became a Category 3 Hurricane. 

The cooler waters near our coast calmed it down slightly but it was still on the threshold of hurricane status when it made landfall in Ireland in October 2017.

Met Éireann were watching this highly unusual weather pattern and made the unprecedented decision to issue a red weather alert the Saturday before it hit us - a full 48 hours in advance. 

Joan explains they have never issued a weather warning so far in advance before.

Ophelia has been acknowledged as the worst storm to affect Ireland in 50 years but we were ready for it.

Tragically, three people died as a result of Storm Ophelia but without Met Éireann’s warnings and the subsequent decisions to close all schools, third level institutions, and other public services, there’s no doubt more people would have been killed.

But there was more to come.

“Storm Emma was a snowstorm,” explains Joan, “which is something we get very rarely.”

Last February the cold air from Siberia started building around Ireland and by the end of the month it was entrenched.

What happened next was this very cold air collided with Storm Emma - a storm named by the National Weather Service in Portugal.

“We had very mild wet air coming from Portugal which was going to collide with our cold air to produce blizzards and snow storms and this made it very worrying,” says Joan.

Met Éireann played a pivotal role with the National Emergency Co-ordination Group to issue warnings and keep the snow bound country updated. 

Storm Emma was an extraordinary event which saw the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar appear on national television to warn the nation to stay indoors.

“The main difference between the snowy weather of this year and the snow of 2009/2010 were the snow storms and blizzards,” says Joan.

“Very cold weather normally means less storms but Storm Emma caused drifting which led to very deep snow.

“We were also worried about the melt,” she remembers, “because it could have caused serious flooding. 

"There were actual walls of snow in some parts of the country. But it was a gradual thaw so we were okay. It was the one stroke of luck we had.” 

But more highly unusual weather was on its way - albeit a weather event most of us thoroughly enjoyed and basked in.

“Everyone always wants to know if we’re going to have a hot summer,” she laughs. 

“There’s always a lot of information as to whether we are or not, but it’s not scientific.” 

According to Joan, this year’s heatwave was equivalent to those of 1975, 1976 and 1995.

“The dryness lasted longer this year. We could see the heatwave building up.” 

Hydro Meteoroligist Jo Cullinan and Joan Blackburn deputy head of Forecasting at Met Éireann HQ in Glasnevin, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

Once again, Met Éireann’s forecasts and warnings were used to urge the public to conserve water and avoid serious shortages for the months ahead.

Joan makes an interesting point about the three weather phenomena of 2018. 

“Everyone had to be very careful during Emma and Ophelia but they were short-lived in comparison to the drought,” she says.

It’s certainly been a year of crazy weather but Joan makes the point that 2009/2010 also witnessed some unusual weather events.

“We had really bad rain and flooding in October/November 2009, heavy snow in 2010 and the ash cloud in April.”

Heavy rain leading to flooding - we’re all extremely used to it but in fact it’s the only major weather event Ireland didn’t experience this year.

But hold on to your seats because it’s something climatologists predict is going to get worse.

“Climate change leads to rising temperatures,” says Joan, “and that creates more intense weather events.” 

So the government and Met Éireann are in the process of setting up the new Flood Forecasting Centre. 

Met Éireann is hiring more hydrologists, setting up alerts and modelling the new system.

Joan Blackburn deputy head of Forecasting and Meteoroligist Pat Clarke at Met Éireann HQ in Glasnevin, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

It’s expected to be operational within the next three years. 

But monitoring potential flooding, impending storms and heatwaves is only part of the work Met Éireann does.

Aviation forecasting is a vital part of their service along with the sea area forecast.

But did you know it creates a road forecast for Transport Infrastructure Ireland?

Pat Clarke demonstrated to me how Met Éireann monitors 100 points on our roads to produce a road temperature model.

“We divide the country into eight regions and we’re looking out for frost, ice, wind and rain,” he explains. 

We then relay the information to county councils and private road operators so they can get their crews ready.  Their engineers can ring Met Éireann any time day or night.

Pat explains Met Éireann’s main priority is Health and Safety followed by keeping the country going economically.

And of course it’s open and operational 24 hours a day.

“I left the office at 9pm the day we had the curfew for Storm Emma,” remembers Joan Blackburn “and the streets were completely deserted.”

As she explains, it’s a job where you’re always dealing with the future and there’s a level of uncertainty. 

“We’re monitoring all the time, even on quiet days and we’re weighing up the best scientific evidence. 

"So you’re always asking yourself, have I got it too strong or have I got it strong enough?”

Although she stresses that recent advances in computing have made forecasts much more accurate.

“The biggest computers in the world run the weather data. 

"In years gone by, our models would only forecast every two to three days but now it’s 10 days and there are experimental products that are forecasting out to a month.”

So get ready for Storms Erik, Freya, Gareth and Hannah. 

Whatever our weather has in store, Met Éireann is ready.

“We’re a small island at the edge of a continent surrounded by an ocean,” says Joan.

“And we’re working with nature and the future so it’s always interesting. 

"Our major weather events are nature reminding us who’s boss.

“And nature will always have the power to humble you.”

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