In the early hours of Monday, January 15, 1968, cyclone “Low Q” charged across northern U.K. and smashed the densely populated Central Belt of Scotland with urban winds which have only since been matched when storm Lothar hit southern Paris in late 1999. Glasgow suffered the most intense damage leading to the storm’s more common misnomer of the “Glasgow Hurricane”. This event has quite a low profile today, even in the U.K., and we use its fiftieth anniversary to highlight this exceptional European Windstorm.
Using U.K. Met Office Daily Weather Reports and NCEP weather re-analyses, the origins of the Glasgow Hurricane can be traced back to a cyclone formed in the southern states of the U.S. on January 10, 1968. This air mass passed across the eastern seaboard and into the Atlantic just south of 35°N on January 11. During the next couple of days, a deepening cyclone over the northern North Atlantic drove the main North Atlantic jet eastwards, and the unusually warm Low Q near-surface cyclone moved along in parallel, remaining southwest of the jet.
However, on January 14, this air mass moved under the left exit region of the jet — a configuration that is conducive to rapid cyclone intensification. As a result, the storm’s central pressure deepened from around 995 hPa at 00Z (00:00 UTC), to a lowest recorded pressure of 957.6 hPa at Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides twenty-four hours later. Its near 100 kilometers per hour translation speed was maintained as it raced over Scotland in the early hours of January 15 (Figure 1), perhaps aided by a secondary jet centered over Denmark.
Its speed of movement, combined with sharp pressure gradients to the south of its center, produced ferocious gusts at weather stations throughout central Scotland. The U.K. Met Office documents gusts of 46 meters per second at the three main airports in central Scotland – Glasgow (Abbotsinch station), Prestwick and Edinburgh (Turnhouse station) — and 47 meters per second (105 miles per hour) at the Leuchars airfield, near the City of Dundee.
Since 1968, the only other extra-tropical cyclone to hit a few million Europeans with such strong gusts is storm Lothar in Paris, when 48 meters per second was measured at Orly Airport (although significantly weaker gusts were measured in northern Paris airports — 40 meters per second at Charles De Gaulle and 41 meters per second at Le Bourget). The comparison with Lothar is made more apt by the fact that it too began as a shallow, warm air mass off the southeastern U.S. seaboard which deepened explosively on the other side of the Atlantic under the exit region of a strong jet, and behind the entrance of a weaker secondary jet.
It is not worth comparing gusts from these storms too closely, due to uncertainties from different wind measuring systems, and instead it is fair to say that the gusts across a wide swathe of Scotland were matched by those hitting southern Paris and surrounding areas during Lothar, and that no other extra-tropical storm over the past fifty years has dealt such fierce blows to millions of people.
The impacts of the Glasgow Hurricane were severe — the storm was labelled Scotland’s worst natural disaster in living memory at the time, and nothing has come close since. Twenty deaths were reported in Scotland during the event, which is remarkable for a storm that peaked sharply in the quietest overnight hours, and another thirty deaths occurred while repairing storm damage. Loss of life was also reported in northern England, and at least eight people died in Denmark (notably during daylight hours). Total damages in Scotland were estimated to be £30 million at 1968 prices.
It is difficult to relate these figures to the present-day: the usual economic metrics fail to account for the tighter safety regulations which would reduce the unusually high death toll during repair at the expense of greatly inflated total repair costs. An alternative view on the cost of fixing is obtained from the estimated damage to one half of all social housing or “council houses” in Glasgow, and over 250,000 houses in central Scotland, though the poorer condition of many houses in Glasgow at the time must be borne in mind. The Scotland of fifty years ago is very different from today, and perhaps all we can say with confidence now is that the Glasgow Hurricane is the worst natural disaster to hit the country in many decades.
It is not surprising that central Scotland should have experienced a storm as strong as Lothar in living memory, given the frequency with which 40 meters per second gusts are exceeded in that part of Europe. However, the lack of general awareness of this storm, and similar events such as the January 28, 1927 storm is surprising.
As the French will testify, the question is when, not if, such a severe storm will hit another major urban area. Learning more about the ground-truth of these storms could prevent very unpleasant surprises in the future.