Storm Ophelia struck west Wales on 16th October last year
The consequences were devastating...
Starting as the easternmost Atlantic major hurricane on record, Ophelia was extratropical (and thus downgraded to a ‘storm’) by the time it reached the UK, but it was still regarded as the worst to affect Ireland in 50 years. In Wales, roads were closed, and hundreds of houses were left without power. Five boats were sunk in Porthclais near St Davids, and 92 mile an hour winds hit Milford Haven marina.
For the Trust, it is the Pembrokeshire Islands of Skomer and Skokholm that are always our first concern; lying just off the south west coast of Pembrokeshire they always bear the brunt of autumn storms, and their exposed location leaves them vulnerable to the impacts of Atlantic weather.
Storm Ophelia certainly lived up to the dire warnings issued by the Met Office. Waves reaching 16 metres were recorded at nearby St Ann’s Head. High winds- but even stronger seas- battered both islands. The Skokholm Wardens Richard Brown and Giselle Eagle describe their experience as they returned to their lighthouse base at the end of the day:
“The Lighthouse compound was deep with sea water, and seaweed and spray continued to fly around. We knew we had to get inside quickly but we weren’t greeted by the dry and cosy Lighthouse that we had imagined. It soon became apparent something was wrong. The old generator room door was rattling and all of the equipment and furniture within the room were sodden, covered in glass fragments and pushed up against the wall. The windows were smashed, the wind was howling and as we watched seawater pouring through the ceiling it became apparent that something was seriously wrong. We rushed up to the first floor and saw a huge hole in our living room wall. It was a hole normally plugged by a window, which was now lying flat on the floor. Another wave came splashing through, peppering the walls with seaweed and sand. A wild night followed. Fortuitously a flat calm day followed and we were able to properly assess the damage and carry out make shift repairs for the winter. There had been a huge amount of water damage to the Lighthouse. The door to the generator shed had been blown in and wrapped around the generator. Equipment and personal belongings were laden with glass fragments and debris.”
On Skomer, the damage to our buildings was less, although roof tiles were ripped off both in North Haven and at the Farm accommodation, some left sticking dagger-like into the courtyard turf. On Skomer though, the impacts were more immediately apparent on the wildlife: October is the height of Grey Seal pupping time, with large numbers of pups lying on the island’s beaches. Although seal pups can swim from birth, even large pups are unable to withstand the battering of prolonged and extreme weather. Skomer Wardens Bee Büche and Ed Stubbings monitor the pups daily at this time of year, and by the time the storm abated, two thirds of the pups they had been individually monitoring before the storm had disappeared from the beaches.
On the back of this devastation, WTSWW decided to launch an appeal, to raise funds to repair the substantial damage to the island’s infrastructure, and to help us underwrite the future of the critical seal monitoring and to protect the programme from any future funding pressures.
Many of you responded to this appeal, and incredibly generously- a big thank you to every single person who wrote, phoned or got in touch to support this important cause.
Thanks to your generosity, we actually exceeded our target of £25,000 – and some donations are still coming in.
So, what has happened since?
On Skokholm, after the storm passed, the wardens were left with a relatively short time before the island had to be closed down for the season, to make temporary repairs that would withstand the winter. Doors and windows were boarded up and made good as best as could be achieved. On Skomer, roofs were repaired and as soon as the storm cleared, and seal monitoring resumed, though it would be some months before the true impact of the storm on the final breeding figures could be calculated.
This spring, both sets of wardens have returned to the island and fortunately found that their late season repairs had held strong. On Skokholm, considering it had parts missing from it, the Lighthouse had overwintered extremely well. The walls were damp and even dripping in places where saltwater had driven in. The walls and woodwork were mouldy and the metal work had dribbled rusty stains down the paint work. Still, no further damage had occurred and the unaffected rooms remained as the wardens had left them.
The clean-up job was huge!
The first week of work party volunteers came out armed with cleaning sprays, buckets, scrapers and sponges and, starting in the lantern, cleaned every single bit of every single wall, cabinet, glass, door, window and floor removing the salt, mould and soggy plaster work. The work was grubby and monotonous but the team remained enthusiastic and worked incredibly hard to get the building back to a decent condition.
A dehumidifier, bought with monies raised during the Storm appeal, is currently removing 4 litres of moisture a day from the Lighthouse and whilst it is far from its pre-Ophelia splendour, it is in a good place from which to continue the repair and redecoration in the future. The Lighthouse generator, which had been affected by saltwater after the storm damaged the door, was coaxed back into life with an engineer’s support- but funding from the appeal has now also been set aside to replace this when it reaches the end of its life.
Counting the cost to the seal population
On Skomer, the results of the autumn and winter’s seal monitoring was being tallied up. As well as Storm Ophelia, which had washed roughly two-thirds of the white coated pups off the beaches, the island had been subject to Storm Brian, only five days later, which was less severe but no less devastating, sweeping some of the remaining pups away. Fortunately, 2017 was a good year overall for our seals, and so some pups had already weaned and moulted before the storm hit, and others were not born until after the storms had passed.
In the final analysis, in the worst-case scenario (assuming the pups that disappeared during the storm had died, even the larger ones that we would normally assume had survived), pup survival was 62%. Whilst significantly lower than average, this is much higher than we could have hoped or imagined in those first hours after the storm. The fact that survival was as high as it was can be explained by the very good start of the seal pupping season (of the first 52 pups born only four died). It shows how populations are in fact able to deal with some of these natural disasters, and that bad years can be accommodated without too much long-term impact on the population
We remain concerned
If over time climate change causes us to have more storms of this severity, with greater frequencies earlier in the autumn, then we may start to see bigger and longer term impacts on the Grey Seal population. This is where the immense value of the long-term monitoring data really becomes apparent; with Grey Seal data stretching back decades, we are able to work with Natural Resources Wales to establish long term trends and work to understand the effects of changes in the environment in a way we never could if we only collected data reactively.
We were fortunate that the date of this storm meant that we did not record any impact on the seabirds, whose breeding season was over, but the same concerns apply to what seems to be a trend towards bigger and more frequent summer storms in the future.
The Trust would like to extend a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who has donated to the storm appeal- your generosity has made a massive difference at a difficult time. Even now, we are still in the process of replacing equipment that was damaged or destroyed in the storm six months ago. You have helped us to put right what was damaged, replace what was destroyed, and have confidence that we can continue the essential work to impact the effect of such events on the islands’ wildlife into the future.