Great British Weather Disasters, By Philip Eden

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The Independent Culture

The recent cold snap may have been unusual, but this book reminds us that very few meteorological surprises merit the cliché "unprecedented". In January 1881, heavy snow combined with one of the strongest gales on record to kill approximately 600 in London.

On 21 May 1950, a tornado cut a 110km swathe through southern Britain. Hailstones as big as golf balls occur once or twice a year. No wonder that weather expert Eden blew a gasket when he heard environment minister Phil Woolas preparing to use "unprecedented" to describe a Yorkshire flood in a TV studio: "If you use that word once... I will give chapter and verse on at least a dozen precedents." As a "chronology of disaster" from 1901-2008 makes clear, almost every year is extreme in one way.