10 Extreme Acts of Mother Nature You Never Knew Britain Experienced, and 1 You Did
When Mother Nature gets angry the effects can be both spectacular and catastrophic.
You’ll rarely see news images of towns and homes destroyed by violent winds; buildings rocking on their foundations or tornadoes tearing across the land emanate from Great Britain.
The UK has, it seems, a very droll climate and benign landscape, yet you’d be surprised by the extreme weather events and natural disasters that have actually occurred on this supposedly green and pleasant land.
The Hurricane of 1987 was an event immortalized in the annals of British pop culture by preeminent BBC weatherman Michael Fish denying on live TV that a hurricane was on its way, only to eat his words hours later.
On the night of 15th/16th of October, the great storm ploughed into the English south coast and gave the country a thorough battering before coming out the other side again at The Wash.
With the highest gusts measuring 135mph (217km/h), 15 million trees were felled, blocking roads and crushing cars. Roofs and windows were smashed and several hundred thousand people were left without power, not fully restored until more than two weeks later. At sea, one ferry capsized.
18 people perished and the damage totalled over two billion pounds.
For a country known for its rain and mild climate, the UK has endured some pretty brutal heatwaves over the decades. The worst of them was the heatwave of 1911. For over two months, temperature records were smashed, with a high of 36.7 °C (98.1 °F).
It got so hot rural workers in Lancashire had to adopt a ‘siesta’ workday where they would quit the mid-afternoon swelter to return to their labours in the evening. Whilst on the London Docks thousands of workers went on strike in desperation to escape toiling in the merciless heat. 2500-4000 souls, including over 600 babies, succumbed to the punishing heat before it abated.
You might find it hard to believe, but some evidence suggests a tsunami devastated the coastline of the Bristol Channel in 1607AD. It drowned thousands of people, swept away houses and villages and destroyed whole flocks of cattle.
A contemporary account of the event described the disaster: “… so violent and swift were the outragiouse waves, that pursued one an other, with such vehemencie, and the Waters multiplying so much in so short a time, that… most part of those cuntreys (and especially the places which lay lowe) were all over flowen, and many hundreds of people both men women, and children were then quite devoured, by these outragious waters, such was the furie of the waves, of the Seas, the one of them dryving the other forwardes with such force and swiftnes.”
The UK actually gets about 35 twisters each year, though admittedly, quite weak ones.
In Birmingham 2005, however, a tornado tore through the city, briefly reaching F3 status on the Fujita scale. It picked up cars and flung them around, ripped the tower off a primary school and uprooted 1100 trees, among other damage caused. 19 people were injured and 40 million pounds of damage was caused.
In 1981 the UK was hit by an outbreak of over 100 tornadoes in the space of five hours on November the 23rd. Although the strongest reached just F2 status, hundreds of properties were damaged. It was the largest recorded tornado outbreak in European history.
There is even a medieval report of a big F4 tornado hitting London in 1091, pulverising the then wooden London Bridge.
Although Britain is notorious for its frequent showers, it has suffered a number of droughts in recent history.
The UK was absolutely parched and desperate for a thirst-quenching downpour by the end of the summer of 1976. This was the most severe drought in living memory. The warmest Summer in 350 years was preceded by an exceptionally dry 12 months including the previous winter which received only 61% of the rainfall expected.
In the Summer of ’76 some parts of South West England hadn’t seen a drop of rain for 45 days and by August the situation had deteriorated to the extent Parliament passed the Drought Act. This resulted in thousands of homes in Yorkshire and East Anglia having their water supply replaced by communal standpipes in the streets, and many house-holders in Wales and the west of England were left without tap water for much of the day.
Meanwhile, crops were badly hit; £500 million pounds worth of crops were wasted resulting in a 12% jump in food prices.
The Haweswater Reservoir dried up so much it held just 10% capacity.
September rains finally broke what had become the driest 16 month period in more than a quarter of a millennium.
Although the UK is clearly not earthquake-prone, it may interest you to know that 200–300 tremors and mild quakes are detected every year by the British Geological Survey.
On June, 7th, 1931 a severe earthquake measuring 6.1 on the Richter Scale hit 60 miles (97 km) off the Yorkshire coast in the North Sea which toppled chimneys and caused cliffs to crumble. A woman also died from a heart attack triggered by the shocking event.
More recently in 2008, Lincolnshire in England was hit by a 5.2 quake. There were no deaths, but a 19-year-old man suffered a broken pelvis when a piece of chimney fell through the roof onto his attic bed.
The UK once made a sterling attempt to imitate the frigid Siberian Tundra in what became dubbed the ‘Big Freeze’ of 1963. It was the coldest winter in 200 years with an average temperature of −2.1 °C (28.2 °F) in the month of January.
In Scotland the thermometer bottomed out at an arctic −19.4 °C (−2.9 °F).
A blizzard hit Britain just before the turn of the year and snowdrifts formed up to 6 metres (20 ft) in places. My father remembers it as the winter when he awoke one morning to find the snow was up to his bedroom window!
Most of the country was covered in snow for January and February and it was only until March that this once temperate land began to thaw out.
On the 20th of January 283 workers had to be rescued by RAF helicopters from Fylingdales, where they had been snowbound for several days.
In February people had to endure a whopping 36-hour-long blizzard. The transport network was severely disrupted and farmers could only keep their flocks from starving by dropping food to them from helicopters.
Meanwhile, lakes and waterways froze over and could be skated on. The Thames even saw its first car rally on the ice.
Even the sea off the Kent coastline froze to a mile out. The Chatham Dockyard was only kept open with the use of an icebreaker.
At least 50 people died in this artic spell.
From ice to fire, we’ve been awed by the footage of raging forest fires which break out every year across vast swathes of the USA and Australia, torching everything in their path to a crisp, but the UK also regularly gets wildfires.
One of the worst of these was a wildfire which ignited in Scotland, of all places, in 2019.
Dry conditions and high winds caused the flames to spread aggressively and at its height, 80 firefighters were tackling the blaze.
In just the first day, the fire destroyed more than 40 square kilometres (10,000 acres) and created a plume of smoke that could be seen from space.
Later, firefighters thought they had tackled most of the blaze and left the scene. However, it reignited and destroyed another 50 square kilometres (12,400 acres).
This is one natural disaster we British are very familiar with, particularly around my corner of the island in the Cotswold Hills. It makes me recall driving to work in 2007 over the top of the hills with the bizarre sensation of being surrounded by lakes of floodwater on either side of the road.
The worst flood, indeed natural disaster, to befall the UK in modern times undoubtedly has to be the North Sea Flood of 1953.
On New Year’s Eve a combination of roaring winds and a high spring tide forced seawater to rise and overwhelm the inadequate sea defences along the south-east coast of England (not to mention of Belgium and the Netherlands).
The sea level swelled so quickly, thousands were caught off guard as water surged into their homes and businesses. 250 square kilometres (65,000 acres) of land were submerged.
People were forced to wait for rescue as the water continued to rise, with an account of at least one family forced to spend the night exposed to the elements on the roof of their house as the waters sloshed around them.
Houses and livestock were washed out to sea as water levels rose by 4m (16ft).
The death toll is estimated at 307 plus another 224 at sea, and 30,000 had to be evacuated. There was also a whopping £50 million pounds worth of damage.
One of the hills above and around the town, Cliffe Hill, though not very big, did have a very steep slope and at its base was a row of cottages. The blizzard conditions had caused a huge amount of snow to accumulate into a cornice hanging over the row of houses, and even back then they could see the danger and the cottage residents were advised to evacuate, but they chose not to.
When the accumulation of snow finally gave way, 15 people were judged to have been in the houses below.
One eyewitness described what happened: “The mass appeared to strike the houses first at the base, heaving them upwards, and then breaking over them like a gigantic wave. There was nothing but a mound of pure white.”
A rescue operation by townspeople succeeded in pulling seven survivors from the wreckage before hypothermia or suffocation could claim them, but eight other individuals were found dead.
The Lewes Avalanche remains Britain’s deadliest ever.
Finally, the story of a horrific disaster befell the residents of Aberfan in Wales on 21st October 1966.
The village is nestled on the slopes of the Brecon Beacon mountain range where mining was an integral part of the economy.
Over the years a spoil tip (accumulated waste material removed during mining) had been negligently built up on the slopes above the village.
A period of heavy rain in the days leading up led to a build-up of water within the tip which caused it to suddenly slide downhill. Those who heard the mass of mine mud surging down towards them said the sound reminded them of a low-flying jet or thunder.
The tragedy was that it wasn’t just houses in the path of this slurry of death; Pantglas Junior School also lay in its path and was full of students when the wall of sludge overwhelmed them and snuffed out most of their short lives.
Feverish rescue efforts managed to save dozens of buried adults and children yet, sadly, 144 people died that day, including five teachers and 109 pupils from the school.