The extratropical cyclone known as Storm Leslie brought hurricane force winds and severe floods to parts of Portugal, Spain and France in mid-October 2018.
By Ivan Smiljanic (SCISYS), Ian Mills (Ian Mills Consulting) and Sancha Lancaster (Pactum)
Leslie was the strongest extratropical cyclone strike the Iberian Peninsula since 1842. Leslie, a large, long-lived, erratic tropical cyclone, was the 12th named storm and sixth hurricane of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season.
For few weeks in fact this low pressure system (hurricane Leslie) moved around central North Atlantic before it was picked up by a jet stream that guided it towards Europe. Figure 1 shows the position of the system during its life cycle, where the very straight path it took the last few days indicates the influence of the jet stream.
Although, Leslie was no longer a hurricane by the time it had travelled across the Atlantic, it was still a storm-force extratropical cyclone, with winds of 110 km/h (70 mph).
In advance of Leslie, IPMA issued red warnings for high winds or dangerous coastal conditions for 13 out of its 18 districts, including the capital Lisbon. On 13 October at 21:10 UTC, Leslie made landfall in Figueira da Foz, where winds up to 175 km/h (109 mph) were recorded.
The storm brought heavy rains and strong waves across the country, leaving 324,000 homes without power, more than 60 people had to be evacuated and two people were killed.
Looking at the moisture content and wave height estimations, only a few hours before the landfall, it becomes obvious why the heavy rain and winds/waves episodes contributed greatly to the alarming situation (Figures 2 and 3).
On 15 October moisture from Leslie's dissipating extratropical remnant fed a quasi-stationary front over southwestern France, generating the conditions favourable for intense rain events, leading to flash flooding in the area. Carcassonne had 160–180 mm of rain in five hours and at least 14 people were reported to have died, mainly in Villegailhenc, Aude.
The last phase of this hurricane, together with landfall and the transition of the disturbance towards France, is covered by the Airmass RGB animated imagery (Figure 4). It is obvious that the system became more disorganised after the landfall — reducing in strength and being advected towards the east as a typical low pressure disturbance.
Figure 4: Meteosat-11 Airmass RGB animation, 13 Oct 00:00 UTC–15 Oct 12:00 UTC
The Airmass RGB animation (Figure 5) from 14 October 18:00 UTC to 15 October 06:00 UTC, shows a bright white cloud band moving northeast from northeast Spain into southwest France. This front brought the heavy rain to southwest France, causing severe flooding.
Figure 5: Meteosat-11 Airmass RGB animation, 14 Oct 18:00 UTC–15 Oct 06:00 UTC
Although there were some signs of large convective cloud embedded in this cloud band contributing to the heavy rain (Figure 6), the CAPE product from ECMWF’s model (Figure 7) showed only modest levels of CAPE over southwest France. There must have been additional factors which contributed to the high rainfall totals.
Comparing two different rainfall products from NWCSAF (Figure 8) shows that stratiform rain was the de facto cause for the floods in southwestern France. Convective development was relatively shallow and that is why the convective rainfall product was signalling marginal rainfall accumulations in that area.
This tropical cyclone was accompanied by a considerable moisture advection from the tropics, mostly in the lower levels around 850 hPa (see Figure 9). This moisture contributed very much to subsequent heavy-rain episodes in France.
The 2 m Dew Point and wind from the ECMWF model (Figure 10) shows very high dew point air being fed in from the Mediterranean on the southeasterly low level winds. This would mean high levels of moisture moved across southwest France. As long as this flow persisted it would continue to be feed this moisture laden air over the land.
This low level moist air was forced to rise as it met the high ground in south west France — forming low level cloud.
As the frontal cloud moved over this low level flow of moist air, as seen on the Meteosat-11 infrared image (Figure 11), the precipitation from the medium level cloud would fall through the lower level cloud sweeping up the smaller droplets of rain or drizzle and, hence, increase the droplet size dramatically, leading to heavy rain at the surface. This effect, known as the seeder-feeder mechanism, can dramatically increase rainfall amounts and lead to flash floods.
Storm Leslie hits Portugal, leaves thousands without power (Reuters)
France: 7 months of rain in hours spurs deadly flash floods (The Weather Network)