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Opinion: Just when exactly was the “great storm”?!

When it comes to the weather it often comes down to your personal experiences rather than the facts when we describe storms or severe conditions.

The other night I was enjoying a rerun of the Vicar of Dibley and it started with an Atlantic hurricane blowing a tree through a stained glass window in the church.  The next scene starts with the church committee chairman, David, declaring the crisis meeting open, looking at damage after “the great storm”.

He’s instantly interupted by the man, Frank, taking the minutes “Are you sure you want to call it the “great” storm?” and begins to talk about another storm from the past.

It leads into a funny back and forth where they all debate just which storm exactly was the “great” one. They also discuss other severe weather moments – like the great freeze….or was it the great frost?.

The episode had me laughing as it reminded me of conversations I’ve had here in New Zealand.  Quite often I’m emailed interesting stories from the great [insert storm, wind, rain, snow, freeze, here].  Sometimes you know exactly which storm…other times you have no idea.

When I first moved to Te Aroha in the eastern Waikato in the late 80s it was just after “the great flood” a few years earlier. 

In 1987 I was in London for the “great storm” which caused death and major damage across much of the UK.

In the US, hurricane names have replaced calling storms “the big storm”.  Although hurricanes don’t occur in winter – which has lead private forecaster to start naming winter storms.  It has been controversial to some – we thought about it for NZ but figured we didn’t have enough of them to warrant it.

In New Zealand at least once a year I hear “this was worse than Bola” – and this highlights what I’m getting at.  People remember storms on a very personal level – not in the factual way some meteorologists might think.  Overall we haven’t seen a repeat of Bola along the North Island’s east coast – but in localised parts of Hawkes Bay, Gisborne, etc there have certainly been a number of bigger flood events. Events that really were worse than Bola – for them locally.

Our feelings and memories are not accurate guides.  However there is one thing meteorlogists can’t argue with – how something feels to you.  If last night really felt like the coldest night you’ve experienced – that may well be true.  However that doesn’t mean it was the coldest night ever for that location. tries to cover both aspects – we cover the factual stuff but it’s nice to cover how people are feeling.  If we relied on the stats we’d be telling farmers in the north not to complain about the dry conditions – instead we’ve been exclsuively working with the farming community and organisations to get a personal connection with those who work outdoors in the weather every day – and we are leading the way with covering just how dry it is for some farmers across New Zealand at the moment – despite some deluges in recent weeks..

It’s one of the best parts of my job – hearing from those around the country with stories about weather conditions where they are – please keep the comments and emails coming in.   I think weather forecasters that engage with the public from all walks of life across the country are the ones who are most likely to present forecasts that relate best to them.

People all over the world are obsessed with talking about the weather – it’s a daily automatic function for the majority of us.  With so many people talking about the weather each day, it makes sense for us as forecasters to listen to what you’re saying – even if it is about a “great storm” that perhaps some of us can’t even remember!

For those who want to watch the funny weather clip from the Vicar of Dibley please see the video below 

Column by head weather analyst Philip Duncan



C Johnson on 21/11/2013 9:09pm

If there was a question I’d ask it would be re what has happened to the S toughs? They’re normally very common, but this Winter-Spring have been missing. Out of four big S’s this season, three have hit > 110+ km/h here, with 140 arrival gusts in June. They’ve all been nuts. But the southerlies have all been downslope directly ex Wellington, rather than from the Cook Strait troughs. The big wall of white polar air bursting straight into us off Cook is normally a common sight, but not in 2013. Got me worried as we need the S’s here to kick the orographic stuff out of it, as well as bringing rain and cooler temps. Makes me think of El Nino when the southerlies are pushed off shore .. cringe.

Andrew on 21/11/2013 6:40pm

You’re spot on with this one. People have very short and selective memories. Each newer generation tends to think things are more extreme now than before. Weather, music, sport.

This link is interesting, if a bit OTT. Bit irresponsible.

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