Massive Storm Strikes Western Europe

By: Christopher C. Burt , 9:14 PM GMT on December 18, 2011

Massive Storm Strikes Western Europe

One of the most intense storms in recent years carved a path across Western Europe December 15-17th. Named winter-storm ‘Joachim’ (intense extra-tropical storms are named like hurricanes in Europe) the center of the storm passed between France and the United Kingdom and then across the Low Countries and into Northwestern Germany and on to Poland. A peak wind gust of 211 kph (131 mph) was measured at Puy de Dome in Auvergne, France.

Winter Storm Joachim

The central pressure of Joachim fell as low as 963.8 mb (28.46”) in Braunschweig in western Germany (and 964 mb at Hannover), perhaps a national record for low pressure. In Germany sustained winds of 87 mph were measured at Wendelstein at 8 pm local time on December 16th.

Satellite image with isobaric overlay for 12z on December 16th at which point winter storm Joachim was at its peak strength. Image from German Met. Department.

Widespread wind damage in northern France brought down power lines resulting in 400,000 homes losing electricity. A large Maltese cargo ship, the TK Bremen, was washed ashore by 25-foot English Channel seas landing on the coast of Brittany. The crew was safe but some 200 tons of fuel oil leaked from the vessel.

The 109-meter long cargo ship TK Bremen ashore on the French coast of Brittany. Photographer not identified/ Reuters.

In Switzerland wind gusts up to 175 kph (105 mph) were measured at Boenspitzen, a mountaintop site in the northeast of the country. However, high winds effected low elevations as well.

Maximum wind gusts in kph reported from Switzerland during the storm on December 16th. The figures are color-coded according to wind strength. Map from Meteo Swiss.

Welcome snowfall blanketed most of the Alpine resorts with as much as 1.5 meters (60”) recorded at Oberwald in the central Swiss Alps.

Blizzard conditions rage in the Swiss village of Bellwald at the height of the storm. Up to five feet of snow fell in the region. Photo from Meteo Swiss web site, photographer not identified.

To the north of the low-pressure center, The United Kingdom reported its first significant snowfall of the season with 10cm (4”) reported from Leadsville in the highlands north of London.

In spite of the intensity of the storm there have, so far, been no reported fatalities and few serious injuries. In fact, overall, the storm has brought much needed precipitation to the region. In western Switzerland and Austria the year-to-date precipitation, prior to Joachim, has been the lowest on record (since 1894). The snowfall has also brought welcome relief to the Alpine ski resorts that have been virtually snowless until now.

Other Historic Winter Storms of Western Europe

The most destructive storms throughout European history have been monstrous extra-tropical cyclones that have blown in from the Atlantic during the winter months (like Joachim this week). These storms are similar to the ones that rake the U.S. Pacific Northwest the same time of year. However, the latitude of northwestern Europe is closer to that of the Canadian Pacific than the U.S. Pacific, and hence the low-pressure systems striking Europe tend to be more intense than those experienced in the U.S. Pacific states. The lowest pressure reading of 962 mb (28.40”) recorded along the Washington coast can hardly compare to Britain’s lowest reading of 925.6 mb (27.33”).

Sea flooding, especially in the aptly named Low Countries of Holland and Belgium, has long been the most devastating aspect of these storms. In 1228 some sources estimate 100,000 people drowned (a figure difficult to believe!) in Holland’s Friesland, when a storm surge flooded a large portion of the country. As recently as January 1953, a storm surge once again broke through the dikes of Holland drowning 1,800. Another 307 lives were lost in England to coastal flooding. The winds during this great storm reached 125 mph in the Orkney Islands. Winds up to 175 mph in the North Sea sank several cargo ships, and tragically, the ferry Princess Victoria went down with 132 passengers and crew in the Irish Sea.

Following the 1953 storm, Holland undertook a massive engineering project to protect its vast miles of reclaimed land behind a complex series of dikes and dams.

Great Britain’s most infamous cyclone occurred on November 26–27, 1703, and has since been known as the Great Storm. It was documented by then journalist Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe), who traveled the countryside in a vain attempt to count the number of trees blown down. He forsook this fruitless task upon reaching the number 17,000. Hundreds if not thousands of homes, windmills, barns, and churches were destroyed across southern England. But the worst of the disaster was at sea where hundreds of ships, many from the Royal Navy, were lost along with some 8,000 sailors.

A very similar storm cut a swath across southern Britain on the night of October 15–16, 1987, causing widespread destruction. In London’s parks, thousands of century-old trees were lost. Winds were clocked at 115 mph at Shoreham-by-Sea, and the barometric pressure fell to 956 mb (28.23”) in Bristol.

The windstorm of October 16, 1987 destroyed many historic gardens in southern England, such as this at the landmark Emmetts House and Garden in Kent. Photo by Mike Howarth, National Trust.

An even more devastating storm swept across France and Germany on December 26–28, 1999, with winds up to 135 mph. Orly Airport near Paris recorded a maximum gust of 108 mph. The historic gardens of Versailles were almost completely destroyed and lost 10,000 trees, some of which had stood since the French Revolution. All in all, 140 people were killed in storm-related accidents and avalanches in France, Germany, Belgium, and Austria. This cyclone has since been dubbed Europe’s “Storm of the 20th Century.”

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

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13. longchampshop
5:45 AM GMT on December 28, 2011
Thanks for sharing
Longchamp Le Pliage Large
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12. airman45
9:04 PM GMT on December 26, 2011
Hello Mr. Burt,

I live in southern Germany and Joachim was quite a storm. Stuttgart airport measured 83 kph (52 mph) gusts but were much higher in the Alps south of us.

At home I measured 978mb (28.85 in), lowest I have ever seen here. By contrast today it reached 1040mb (30.71 in), the highest I have seen here. What a difference a week can make.

From January to March 1990 five major storms struck northern Europe. The worst was March 1, 1990 and millions of fir trees were lost in Germany alone. These trees are very tall but very shallow rooted. The root system can be as big around as a house but only a few feet deep. Never saw such tree destruction in my life.
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11. BaltimoreBrian
9:06 PM GMT on December 24, 2011
Merry Christmas Mr. Burt! :)
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10. Some1Has2BtheRookie
6:42 PM GMT on December 24, 2011
I wish to thank each of you for your many splendid posts, knowledge, companionship and general great fun. The present I wish to give to us all is a Very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and may 2012 be the best year of your life. May we all remain safe, happy and well! .. I look forward to seeing each of you in the coming year. To my extended family, on this blog, all the best.

Merry Christmas, Chris!
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8. biowizard
12:46 PM GMT on December 20, 2011
Regarding the 1987 UK "Hurricane", as it was (incorrectly) known: it is estimated that 10,000,000 (yes, ten MILLION) trees were lost that night in Southern England. The entire landscape was changed beyond recognition in many places.

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7. BaltimoreBrian
5:39 PM GMT on December 19, 2011
I wonder what this storm will do as it heads east into Asia.
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2. originalLT
2:21 AM GMT on December 19, 2011
Thank you for this report and all the historical facts you presented.
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1. Some1Has2BtheRookie
11:44 PM GMT on December 18, 2011
Thank you, Chris.

What an amazing planet we live on. While generally quite supportive of our life it is also quite capable of making it difficult as well.
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Weather Extremes

About weatherhistorian

Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.