"Winter Wallop Pounds The Northeast" -The Weather Channel
Weather Channel debuted in 1982 to a little over 9 million viewers. By
1985 they'd expanded their audience to over 22 million households and officially
declared profitability. With their success came a new approach to understanding
and reporting the weather that has greatly increased the general public's
awareness and understanding of climatology. While this has probably been
a good thing overall, the media tends towards hyperbole in their weather
coverage and each sizable storm is likely to be tagged a "Killer" or
the "Storm of the Century." Given that context, I didn't
pay much notice to the breathless coverage of the Blizzard that was predicted
for this weekend in New England. At least not at
My interest is usually focused on the marine weather forecast because I spend
some time on the water in boats and like to try and understand what's going on
out there. I don't pay much attention to the talking head weathermen
because their info isn't specific enough for my needs and uses too many words to
deliver too little content. Most often I go directly to the NOAA
website and look at the original data sources and the original forecast team's
discussion of conditions. When those folks start getting nervous I begin
to pay attention, and yesterday they were definitely edgy.
The Forecast Discussion section of the NOAA website1 is usually my first
stop when a major storm develops. This is where the climatologists share
their evolving ideas on how the weather system is changing and, in particular,
which of the computer models2 they are using and how confident they are in
them. The comments are quite candid and can often be very revealing as
theories about the storm are posited and either rebuked or supported over
time. There are sometimes even hints of the pressure the forecasters are
under as emergency response systems mobilize under their guidance. The
discussion for this blizzard includes the comment, "...Drag for the
staff." Given the pressure they must be working under at the moment,
I'm not surprised.
Yesterday, when I first began to take this storm seriously, the Forecast
Discussion already was predicting Blizzard conditions. Most people's idea
of a blizzard involves lots of snow, and usually that's the case, but it's
possible to have blizzard conditions without any snowfall at all.
Technically blizzards are really all about wind. The U.S. Weather Service
defines blizzard conditions as when a winter storm has wind speeds in excess of
35 miles per hour (56 km/h) for over three hours with reduced visibility from
either falling or blowing snow. A severe blizzard occurs when the winds
are over 45 mph (72 km/h) for the same time period. There isn't a specific
temperature requirement, but often blizzards have temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit
Having lived here in New England through a few blizzards now, I've come to
take them seriously, so when I saw the following comments in the NOAA
discussion, it got my full attention.
"A POWERFUL WINTER STORM WILL TURN FEROCIOUS THIS COMING SUNDAY
MORNING BRINGING WELL IN EXCESS OF A FOOT OF SNOW TO ALL OF SOUTHERN
NEW ENGLAND...LIKELY A TOP TEN SNOWSTORM IN THE HISTORIC ANNALS OF
THE PAST 100 YEARS OR SO."
Unlike the Weather Channel, these folks don't use words like 'ferocious'
With the NOAA discussion as a background I went looking for more details on
what was causing this big snowstorm and that led me to the surface pressure map3 . The pressure maps are where it's really at in basic weather
forecasting, but most people's eyes glaze over at the sight of them. I
guess they look intimidating with their isobars and fronts hovering over the map
ominously, but once you get the knack for reading them, they're the best source
of hard data around. Without going into eye-glazing detail, I could see
that there was a big deep low pressure sitting off the coast of New England and
a band of high pressure over the central U.S. that was feeding it. The
tight lines surrounding the low pressure indicated wind and lots of it.
Here's a fun way to understand how high and low pressure weather systems
interact that may help explain the violence of this current storm:
- Hold out your right arm with the palm open and your thumb facing away
from your body.
- Hold out your left hand with the palm closed into a fist, and your thumb
facing away from your body.
- Now very slowly rotate both hands so your thumbs are pointing towards
your body. As you do this, open the fist of your left hand and close
your right hand to form a fist.
Do it a few times until it comes naturally, then imagine that your right hand
is a cold front, spinning slowly counterclockwise and pulling air from the
surrounding area as it squeezes upwards into the atmosphere. Imagine that
your left hand is a warm front composed of warm moist air that it releases
downwards into the atmosphere as it rotates clockwise. Finally, as you
watch the warm front (left hand) giving up it's warm moist air, imagine that air
being sucked up greedily into the tightening maw of the cold low pressure.
That's what makes the wind.
Believe it or not, once you can clearly visualize all that, you've got the
basics of our blizzard down pretty pat. The deep low off the coast is
sucking air across the region from the inland high. It's creating lots of snow
as the masses of warm moist air are chilled in the upper atmosphere. The
strength of the winds are due to the extreme low pressure, i.e. it's making a
really tight fist. The northeastern direction of the winds we are seeing
is due to the counterclockwise rotation of the low pressure system and New
England's relative location a little northwest of the low.
This mechanism of one or more highs 'feeding' a deepening low is the basis
for many types of storm. In the book, The Perfect Storm, Sebastian
Junger describes a storm system of this type in great detail. If the
conditions we are seeing now occurred in late summer down off Florida, the
rotating low pressure might become violently self sustaining and create a
The blizzard we're seeing right now may not be 'Perfect,' but it's pretty
I don't like to dramatize this kind of thing, there's enough of that going on
already on the television with 'Storm Advisories' on almost every station. On
the other hand, it's early morning here on Cape Cod, and we've already
accumulated well over two feet of snow. I can hear the wind howling
outside. It's been been gusting over 30 since midnight and, according to the
wizkids at NOAA the worst may yet be coming. We bought a bunch of
groceries yesterday, and I hauled up as much firewood as our hearth can hold, so
we'll be able to watch the storm develop in comfort and security. In all likelihood
the power will go out at some point, but that's fun if you adopt the right
attitude and have plenty of candles.
If it lightens up this afternoon we're thinking of going cross country skiing
along the beach. No matter how many times I see it, the vision of a frozen
sea still stirs me.
1 NOAA Forecast Discussion: http://www.erh.noaa.gov/box/fcsts/BOSAFDBOX.html
2 A nice introduction to weather
3 The surface pressure map for New
Well, it's almost 0900 now and I thought it might be fun to update this
writeup in real time while this storm plays itself out today.
- 0900 Sunday 23 January 2005: The power grid has been down all over Falmouth
for an hour and a half already and my deck has accumulated 29 inches of fluffy
snow. I think the town snowplows are keeping up with the plowing, but it looks
like they're beginning to have trouble finding a place to put the new snow
because the drifts are getting too high. I'm pretty sure that we
couldn't get our car out of the garage and down to the road without several
hours of heroic shoveling anyway. We're lucky because our house has an
emergency generator that provides power when the grid goes down.
Unfortunately, our broadband is cable, and the power outage has brought down the
local Adelphia uplink. I'm logged on via an old (and painfully slow)
dialup. I've heard that power is out on Martha's Vineyard
- 1100 Sunday 23 January 2005: Snowdrifts up to four feet in my yard now, the grid power is still down and I just came in from an adventure! I was admiring the snow piled up like the Great Wall of China along the deck railing when I noticed a barn sparrow perched on the bird feeder,
buffeted by the icy winds. To my amazement I watched him suddenly just flop over the rim of the bird feeder upside down, hang there for a few seconds by one leg, then drop off out of sight!
The poor little guy had obviously frozen to death right before my eyes! I took a closer look at the bird feeder and noticed that it was completely empty and there was a crowd of little birds flocking miserably around it, hoping to find the one last sunflower seed. I remembered my Audubon buddy admonishing me that once you start feeding the 'winter birds' you have to keep it up because they can't easily relocate to another birdfeeder in the middle of winter. I'm pretty conscientious about it, but apparently it got away from me. It was painfully obvious that these little storm
victims needed emergency assistance and that I was the one man on earth who could help them!
I quickly donned my Carhart exposure suit and snow boots and headed for the upper deck to pull in the bird feeder. I opened the sliding glass door and found a waist high wall of snow covering the entire deck. You can't walk in that kind of stuff until it packs down a bit so I sort of waded and swam through it to the edge of the deck and leaned halfway over the railing to
retrieve the feeder. At that moment, a mighty blast of wind came over the roof and nailed me on the back, completely blowing my balance. If you've never been in really high winds before you wouldn't believe how much force they have. I'd estimate that gust at about 70 mph. Anyway I was suddenly hanging way further over the edge than I'd anticipated or was comfortable with. I balanced myself then managed to grab the line holding the birdfeeder and wiggle back onto the deck, my poor old grouchy heart beating like a drum.
I filled the silly thing with black oiled sunflower seeds and put it back out there without further mishap. Before going back in, I just stood there for a few minutes, facing into the howling wind and blowing snow and marveled at how glad I am that nature is still so awesome at times.
- 1700 Sunday 23 January 2005: Last update I reckon. The worst appears to be over, though it's still snowing hard out there. The Grid came back online about 1500, and so we feel reconnected with the rest of the world. The snowdrifts are shoulder high down in the orchard, and the hot tub is still a lost cause, but the temps have dropped into the low teens, and the winds have backed off to 30 mph or so. The birdys are happy again on my birdfeeder, and "the World" has been cancelled on Monday, so none of my people have to go anywhere for the next 48 hours. This is a good thing because I'm not looking forward to shovelling enough of this soggy mess to free our car.
My buddy Scott, who's lived here for 20 plus years says this is the gnarly-ist storm he's seen here. It's certainly the worst I've seen. I'm not complaining tho, it's been great fun to watch it roll through, admire the majesty of nature and share it with you.
If anybody out there want's to /msg me an update from their part of the
blizzard, I'll try to collate the info and past it here.
themanwho says cross country skiing in .ch is nice. On a beach near cape cod, it would be teh sexy!
--BeanTown: Chiisuta says I am enjoying the bizzard from in bed. There are cars buried outside in wind-driven drifts and all of our windows have gone from square to round with powdery borders. Mr. Hotel was to work today but can't find anyone to tell him if his day was cancelled or not. I have writing to do. The cat is obsessed with the windows. Much tea is being consumed.
--The California Report: riverrun says re Blizzard: Hmmm...lessee...golf today?...a nice amble through the canyon...hmmm...maybe just a drive down along the coast with the top down...decisions...decisions...
JohnnyGoodyear says We've got a foot and a half in Joisey. Family in NH was pummelled. We're off to Virgin Gorda in a couple of weeks; this has helped set the table nicely :)
AREA FORECAST DISCUSSION
National Weather Service Taunton MA
512 AM EST Sun Jan 23 2005
Short term (today through tonight): Blizzard of historic proportions continues this morning. Surface low is now over the benchmark location of 40N 70W with a pressure of 986 mb, still deepening. Winds have begin to pick up with several locations reporting gusts to 40 to 50 knots in eastern areas and 30 to 40 knots in western areas. Scattered power disruptions have now been reported on Cape Cod and expect much worse conditions there as today progresses.
First, wind. Eta shows 925 mb winds of 70-75 knots with very sufficient sfc-925 mb lapse rate to bring these wind gusts to the surface between 18-21z this afternoon around eastern half of Cape Cod, Nantucket, and the waters east of there. This means the potential exists for 80 mph gusts. That, combined with sustained winds of 40-50 mph for much of the day there will undoubtedly cause power lines to come down as well as some structural damage possible to homes.
Next, snow. A persistent band of snowfall has occurred much of the night across Hillsborough County NH and expect high snowfall totals there from that. Another concentrated area has been to the north of Boston where amounts in Billerica already were 20 inches, and along the south coast where 20 inches have occurred from New Bedford to Falmouth. Lesser amounts have been reported, only about 8 inches in the Hartford area so far.
However, water vapor imagery has been showing the development of a closed upper level low pressure system in northeast New Jersey. snowfall has dramatically increased across Long Island and this was spreading northward into Connecticut at 430 AM. Thus snow totals should reach the 16-24 inches originally forecast for Western MA and Northern CT. A persistent snow band has been feeding in from Massachusetts Bay to the Boston area and on SW to the Norwood area. heavy snow also was moving north into south coastal Rhode Island shortly before daybreak. As a result, AM upping snowfall totals to 28-38 inches across all of Eastern MA including Cape Cod. Isolated 40 inch amounts are possible in this region. Nantucket Changed briefly to heavy rain, went back to snow, and is now rain. Will get lots of snow backlash so AM keeping 12-22 inches there.
The record snowfall for Boston is 27.5 inches set on Feb 17-18 2003. The forecast is for this to be broken, although due to the banded structure of the snow, amounts can be highly variable over short distances and it is possible that it could not quite make it.
850 Mb temps cool to -16C to -18C tonight and after the main snow area departs, AM still looking for ocean effect snow showers to produce a few additional inches on the outer Cape. Skies will clear in western and central areas allowing temperatures to plummet to below zero again. Wind chills will approach advisory levels, the day shift will assess that threat.
Coastal flooding, a coastal flood warning remains in effect until 1 PM for the east coast of Massachusetts. With seas of 25 to 35 feet, relatively high astronomical tides, and winds exceeding 50 knots, there could be structural damage from moderate coastal flooding around the time of high tide within a few hours of 10-11 AM this morning. Please refer to the actual coastal flood warning statement for further details on this.
- Courtesy of NOAA, reproduced here under public domain.