Saturday, 10 December 2011

Facing up to cyclone Friedhelm

Cyclone Friedhelm. Image from Wiki Commons
There have been warnings for days. Meteorologists have been tracking an unusually active kink in the polar front over the north Atlantic. Such extratropical cyclones, to give them their technical name, are commonplace. They are the dominant weather feature of our islands, bringing moisture laden air, brisk westerly winds and alternating cold and warm fronts in seemingly relentless strings. They queue up over the ocean, one behind another, waiting to dump their cargo of rain on our already sodden ground. But Cyclone Friedhelm is out of the ordinary, a once-in-a-decade storm.

Watching its progress on an animated meteorological chart is a sinister experience. It appears to snag on the southern tip of Greenland before breaking loose, heading south of Iceland and on a collision course for Scotland. All the while the depression is deepening. Isobars crowd thickly in ever decreasing circles, a black hole, a malevolent eye. I tap the barometer glass for the third or fourth time this morning and the needle jolts abruptly. Atmospheric pressure has dropped by more than twenty millibars in a matter of hours. In the fridge a bottle of sparkling water looks fit to burst.
Suck. Anish Kapoor's bottomless vortex.
at Jupiter Artland

Across the country schools and offices are closing as Scotland braces itself. A steep pressure gradient means wind, great howlings of wind that rampage around this profound puncture in the atmosphere. I liken it to one of those clever donation boxes you sometimes see in museums. Roll your pennies down the shute and watch them spiral faster and faster into the vortex before being gobbled up. And then I remember Suck, a disturbing piece of landscape art by Anish Kapoor. Suck is a great funnel in the ground, but sealed behind a cage so its bottom cannot be seen, only imagined. It may go on to the centre of the Earth, or forever.

On the east coast the worst will not arrive until dusk but already hailstones drill against the windows. Outside on the street the wind slides traffic cones like striped playing pieces on a giant game board. But Friedhelm is only limbering up. By lunchtime the news is reporting a gust of 101mph on the Tay Bridge adding, almost unnecessarily, that it has been closed to all traffic. The Aonach Mor ski centre boasts 130, but the prize goes to the Cairngorm Plateau clocking in at a frightening 165mph, not quite a record but close. Colloquially the Scots are calling it Hurricane Bawbag which, if you speak any Scots, you will know is hardly a term of endearment.

I cannot get to work, there are no trains. But I venture out and the assault is instant. Looking up the clouds are moving so fast it seems as if the triple steeples of St Mary's Cathedral are tumbling. The streets are strewn with cardboard and dead umbrellas. And then a new experience for me. For the first time in my life I am quite literally swept off my feet. Turning the corner I am taken from behind by a sudden squall and find myself dumped without dignity on the wet pavement. Unhurt, I can only laugh along with witnesses at the absurdity of it and think myself fortunate not to be on Aonach Mor or the Cairngorms.

Friedhelm, or Bawbag, rages well into the evening, roaring through the bare trees and punishing pedestrians with volleys of hail. By 10pm the worst is past and I pick my way home through a debris of roof slates and snapped branches. Mercifully it seems nobody has been seriously hurt, although there have been some lucky escapes from burst rivers farther south and there is temporary misery for those left without power. Next day the story is told in sequences of dramatic pictures on internet news sites: towering waves, wrecked wind turbines and the inevitable felled trees. Cyclone Friedhelm will be a storm talked about for a long while in Scotland, at least until the next one.


  1. What a powerful description of last Thursday in Scotland. Your writing has brought the cyclone back with the staggering clarity of simile and metaphor. Tumbling steeples, dead umbrellas, bottomless vortex and playing pieces moving by wind-power. It was a day of elemental savagery. Perfectly observed and beautifully illustrated with photographs, Anhrefn.

  2. A second storm of similar ferocity followed on earler this week, resulting in much the same travel disruption due to high winds and snow. Oddly it received nothing like the level of media coverage of Friedhelm.

    I must confess my photographs are actually not of cyclone Friedhelm but an earlier storm, when it was easier to stand up! I am very pleased you like them though.