Climate change impact on Nor'easters: An increased storm surge threat

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:53 PM GMT on February 11, 2013

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The historic Nor'easter that buried New England under up to 40" of snow Friday and Saturday was the most intense winter storm event on record for southeastern Maine, and second most for Long Island, Connecticut, eastern Massachusetts, and perhaps Rhode Island, writes wunderground's weather historian Christopher C. Burt. His rating was based upon both snowfall amounts and winds. For Long Island and Connecticut, the Blizzard of 1888 remains unparalleled, whereas for Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts, the Blizzard of 1978 remains the top event. His rating took into account snowfall and winds, and took into account historical storms going back over 300 years. So, what impact is climate change having upon these great storms?


Figure 1. Is it a hurricane or an extratropical storm? Satellite image of Winter Storm Nemo taken at 3 pm EST Saturday, February 9, 2013 shows a very hurricane-like storm. The storm had undergone a process known as "occlusion", which trapped a shallow area of warm air near the center. These "warm air seclusions" are not uncommon in intense wintertime extratropical storms, and Nemo was not very hurricane-like in structure, despite the appearance of this satellite image. Image credit: NASA/GSFC.

Climate change impact on Nor'easters: an increased storm surge threat
We should not be surprised to see climate change causing significant changes in the frequency and intensity of Nor'easters, since the atmosphere is undergoing great changes in its circulation patterns and moisture content that will affect all storms. As I wrote in my post, The future of intense winter storms, climate models predict that intense winter storms will become more common globally, and will shift closer to the poles. However, in the Atlantic, intense Nor'easters affecting the U.S. are not predicted to increase in number (but several studies predict an increase in intense winter storms for Northwest Europe.) The number of intense Nor'easters affecting the Northeast U.S. has not increased in recent decades, according to several studies. This analysis is supported by the fact that wintertime wave heights recorded during the period 1975 - 2005 by the three buoys along the central U.S. Atlantic coast showed little change (Komar and Allan, 2008). The damage potential from the storm surges associated with Nor'easters and hurricanes in New England is steadily increasing, though, due to global warming.


Figure 2. Surf from the infamous blizzard of 1978 pounds the coast of Scituate, Massachusetts on February 9, 1978. The storm brought Boston's highest water level on record. Hurricane Sandy brought a higher storm surge to Boston, but the storm hit when the tide was going out, and thus did not set a record high water mark. Image credit: NOAA Photo Library.

An increased storm surge threat for Boston
Of the top ten water levels measured in Boston Harbor since 1921 (all due to Nor'easters), all but one of these events occurred during the the second half of that 92-year period. That's due to rising sea levels. The official top ten storm tides since 1921 at the Boston tide gauge, relative to high tide (Mean Higher High Water, MHHW):

1. 4.82' - February 7, 1978 (Blizzard of 1978)
2. 3.92' - January 2, 1987
3. 3.86' - October 30, 1991 (Perfect Storm)
4. 3.76' - January 28, 1979
5. 3.75' - December 12, 1992
6. 3.70' - December 12, 1959
7. 3.62' - February 2, 1972
8. 3.52' - April 4, 2007
9. 3.51' - May 5, 2005
10. 3.43' - December 12, 2010

Sea level at the Boston tide gauge has risen about a foot (.25 meters) since records began in 1921. Most of that rise is due to the expansion of ocean waters due to global warming, plus increased melting from glaciers and icecaps. According to an excellent analysis by Andrew Freedman of Climate Central, continued sea level rise in Boston will increase the odds of a 1-in-100 year coastal storm surge flood by a factor of 2.5 by the year 2030. Even given the low end of sea level rise scenarios, and without assuming any changes in storms, 1-in-10-year coastal flooding events in the Northeast could triple by 2100, occurring roughly once every 3 years, simply in response to higher sea levels (Tebaldi et al. 2012). Nemo arrives just days after a report the nonprofit Boston Harbor Alliance warned of the region’s growing vulnerability to such storm surge events. The report found that coastal flooding of 5 feet above the current average high tide--a 1-in-100 year flood--would inundate 6.6 percent of the city of Boston. At 7.5 feet above the current average high tide, more than 30 percent of Boston could be flooded, the study found. Boston has gotten lucky two storms in row now--both Hurricane Sandy (storm surge of 4.57') and Winter Storm Nemo (storm surge of 4.21') brought their peak surge near low tide, so the water level during these storms did not make the top-ten list, even though these were two of the four highest storm surges ever measured in Boston. Mr. Burt comments, "it is a bit unsettling that two of the most significant storms in the past 300 years to strike the northeastern quadrant of the U.S. have occurred within just four months from one another." Rising sea levels are already making coastal living at low elevations an increasingly precarious proposition in the Northeast. If Sandy and Nemo are harbingers of a new era of stronger storms for the Northeast U.S., the double-whammy combination of bigger storm surges riding in on higher sea levels will make abandoning higher-risk portions of the coast a necessity.


Figure 3. Severe beach erosion on Plum Island, MA, observed on February 10, 2013, in the wake of Winter Storm Nemo. It was lucky the peak storm surge hit near low tide, or else the coastal damage would have been far more severe. Image credit: Mike Seidel.


Figure 4. Sea level at the Boston tide gauge from 1921 - 2011 shows 2.77 mm/year of rise, or .98 feet (.25 meters) in 91 years. Image credit: NOAA Tides and Currents.

Links and references
My blog post, The future of intense winter storms

My blog post, Heavy snowfall in a warming world

Andrew Freedman of Climate Central's post, Blizzard of 2013 Brings Another Threat: Coastal Flooding

Joe Romm of climateprogress.org has a post, Climate Change and Winter Storm Nemo that has an excellent discussion of how climate change has modified the environment within which storms form, increasing their potential to cause heavy precipitation events.

Komar, P.D. and J.C. Allan, 2008: Increasing hurricane-generated wave heights along the U.S. East coast and their climate controls. Journal of Coastal Research, 24(2), 479-488.

Tebaldi, C., B.H. Strauss, and C.E. Zervas, 2012: Modelling sea level rise impacts on storm surges along US coasts. Environmental Research Letters, 7, 014032

Tom Niziol has an interesting post showing why Connecticut got so much snow from the storm: Northeast snow storm--the pivot point

Lee Grenci discusses how the two winter systems that combined to create the mighty snowstorm didn't really merge, but instead rotated around each other: Looming Snowstorm and the Fujiwhara.

Jeff Masters

Digging Out (steelrail)
Residents begin to dig out after a February Nor'easter dumped 29 inches of snow on Huntington, NY
Digging Out
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Cornish, ME (Mottoole)
Cornish, ME

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Quoting Skyepony:


This is really the deciding factor. We've seen them even more warm core but the fact that some energy is being released through baroclinic means keeps it not tropical. This is why Sandy wasn't tropical at landfall..a front got involved.


Sandy was subtropical IMO
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Quoting Neapolitan:
I'm not sure what you're getting at. Dr. Masters stated that climate change could cause changes in the intensity and frequency of nor'easters; I stated that climate change can make specific weather events (such as nor'easters) worse. I think, then, that most reasonable people would agree that he and I said pretty much the same thing.

Again: climate change won't "cause" nor'easters. No one has said that it will, and anyone claiming otherwise is lying misstating the truth, possibly intentionally.

Causing a thing and making a thing worse are not at all the same. I do so wish people could remember that...


cant twist this one..I dont understand double talk..and then you wonder why we "denalists" have a hard time understanding..
Member Since: August 19, 2006 Posts: 13 Comments: 15744
94. Skyepony (Mod)
Quoting FunnelVortex:


It was also still baroclinic.


This is really the deciding factor. We've seen them even more warm core but the fact that some energy is being released through baroclinic means keeps it not tropical. This is why Sandy wasn't tropical at landfall..a front got involved.
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only time the GFS brings any sort of warmth to the SE.
we may have to wait till march for tornado season:
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Quoting rjsenterp:
Is there anything that the good Dr. Masters doesn't attribute to climate change?

"For Long Island and Connecticut, the Blizzard of 1888 remains unparalleled...". So was that event related to climate change also?

Give me a break. Some things are just random weather events. Period!


You tell em!
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Is there anything that the good Dr. Masters doesn't attribute to climate change?

"For Long Island and Connecticut, the Blizzard of 1888 remains unparalleled...". So was that event related to climate change also?

Give me a break. Some things are just random weather events. Period!
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90. Skyepony (Mod)
Quoting Tribucanes:
Dr. Masters suggesting Nemo was a Cane or extratropical is very interesting indeed. From image alone it certainly looks to fit one of the two. Pressure was low enough; but was there a closed circulation at the time? Will the NHC classify it as such then as time goes by?


It did have a closed circulation which is common for a Nor'easter or extratropical storm. It was briefly a very weak shallow asymmetric warm core which isn't unheard of as a low like that hits the gulf stream.
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Interesting cell near our house this morning.



Then it dropped a few of these:



I could hear the wind blowing through the woods to our south, then a brief shower and it was all over in five minutes.
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So,we can expect more severe Nor'easters due to climate change? What can we do to prevent this from happening?
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Thank you 1900
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Quoting Tribucanes:
So the NHC won't name extratropical warm seclusions in the Northern Hemisphere; makes sense, thanks Vortex.


It was also still baroclinic.
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Quoting ncstorm:
"We should not be surprised to see climate change causing significant changes in the frequency and intensity of Nor'easters"..

so Nea..is Dr. Masters a fool?

"Only a fool would make the claim that tomorrow's potentially historic nor'easter will be "caused" by global warming--and only a bigger fool would make the claim that anyone credible has said that. After all, there's a whole world of difference between saying climate change caused a specific weather event and saying climate change made that specific weather event worse. Denialists know that, which is why they desperately work themselves into a lather making lame strawman arguments in the hopes that the lesser-informed won't recognize the difference."
I'm not sure what you're getting at. Dr. Masters stated that climate change could cause changes in the intensity and frequency of nor'easters; I stated that climate change can make specific weather events (such as nor'easters) worse. I think, then, that most reasonable people would agree that he and I said pretty much the same thing.

Again: climate change won't "cause" nor'easters. No one has said that it will, and anyone claiming otherwise is lying misstating the truth, possibly intentionally.

Causing a thing and making a thing worse are not at all the same. I do so wish people could remember that...
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 13579
So the NHC won't name extratropical warm seclusions in the Northern Hemisphere; makes sense, thanks Vortex.
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Quoting Tribucanes:
Dr. Masters suggesting Nemo was a Cane or extratropical is very interesting indeed. From image alone it certainly looks to fit one of the two. Pressure was low enough; but was there a closed circulation at the time? Will the NHC classify it as such then as time goes by?

Oh, the circulation was definitely closed, but it was not thermodynamically working like a tropical cyclone. >95% of the storm's energy was baroclinicly forced, which is fundamentally different than the latent heat release involved with a tropical cyclone. The big bomb near Iceland a week or so ago was more closely related to a tropical cyclone than this one was, but even that one is not close.
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Quoting weatherbro:
Florida, prepare for a freeze! Models have the o degree line all the way down to Miami by Sunday!!!


Ouch!, and I have an 8:30 t-time Sunday morning...
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That tropical storm in the Indian Ocean

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Quoting WunderGirl12:


lighten up. :D it's a good day!


:)
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Florida, prepare for a freeze! Models have the o degree line all the way down to Miami by Sunday!!!
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Quoting Tribucanes:
Dr. Masters suggesting Nemo was a Cane or extratropical is very interesting indeed. From image alone it certainly looks to fit one of the two. Pressure was low enough; but was there a closed circulation at the time? Will the NHC classify it as such then as time goes by?


It was a warm seclusion. It looks like a cane, but it is not.
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Quoting ncstorm:
"We should not be surprised to see climate change causing significant changes in the frequency and intensity of Nor'easters"..

so Nea..is Dr. Masters a fool?

"Only a fool would make the claim that tomorrow's potentially historic nor'easter will be "caused" by global warming--and only a bigger fool would make the claim that anyone credible has said that. After all, there's a whole world of difference between saying climate change caused a specific weather event and saying climate change made that specific weather event worse. Denialists know that, which is why they desperately work themselves into a lather making lame strawman arguments in the hopes that the lesser-informed won't recognize the difference."


You know, there is a difference between" frequency and intensity" and flat out causation. I'm beginning to think a lot of the misunderstandings here stem purely from semantic understanding or lack there of.
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Quoting trHUrrIXC5MMX:


...


lighten up. :D it's a good day!
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 24 Comments: 812
Dr. Masters suggesting Nemo was a Cane or extratropical is very interesting indeed. From image alone it certainly looks to fit one of the two. Pressure was low enough; but was there a closed circulation at the time? Will the NHC classify it as such then as time goes by?
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@NWSJacksonMS We hope to have some preliminary details later this afternoon.
Member Since: August 1, 2011 Posts: 28 Comments: 8032
CNN iReport Tornado Video
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Quoting WunderGirl12:


we know. we are picking on you. :)


...
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Quoting GeorgiaStormz:


I'd rather know how that felt :D


whys that?
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 24 Comments: 812
Quoting GeorgiaStormz:



Btw the GFS/CMC/UKMET agree on the noreaster.
ECMWF is very weak with it to even not showing it.
GFS has another storm in 10 days.

/lurk mode

That image of the tornado scar in the snow is really freaking cool. Just throwing that out there.

lurk mode
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Brownfield, ME here..11:30AM..it is now snowing harder and accumulating faster than during Saturday's Nor'easter..hmmmmmm..if this keeps up we'll have another 24" on top of the 24" we got Friday through Saturday!!!
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Quoting trHUrrIXC5MMX:
guy's it's road and not toad.


we know. we are picking on you. :)
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 24 Comments: 812
NWS Atlanta ‏@NWSAtlanta
If anyone has any 24 hour rain reports over 3 inches please tweet them or post to our FB page. Thanks! #gawx


I certainly didnt, it all went south.
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guy's it's road and not toad.
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Quoting EricSpittle:
Wonder how the Toad feels about that? :) :P


I'd rather know how that felt :D
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Quoting GeorgiaStormz:
bombs out west of Massachusetts.
Probably boston would get the most snow from this run, although its a bit far out for the most snow:



Dragod66 would get it though

btw @NWSJacksonMS is tweeting damage photos.


Wow, another one?
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Quoting GeorgiaStormz:


*sigh*

gwinnett

directly across north atlanta from me.


thank you..:) :D ;-)
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 24 Comments: 812
Quoting EricSpittle:
Wonder how the Toad feels about that? :) :P


lol
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 24 Comments: 812
wish the Nam proved true,we need rain.............
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Quoting 4waters:



where are you from? this CA or OR, right?


I am from FL, but I have traveled around the country. :-)
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 24 Comments: 812
Quoting WunderGirl12:


Thanks for the warning! Just picking up a car in gwinnette. :-)


*pardon the spelling*


*sigh*

gwinnett

directly across north atlanta from me, but nowhere near as nice.
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Quoting LargoFl:
looks like a Christmas post card huh...


TOAD???? I meant road.. The road is plowed here...
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Quoting WunderGirl12:
Hey guys! Check out my new blog post! you can check it out on WU, or you can check it out in the link below! It's the same thing. :-) Don't forget to comment!

WunderGirl12

http://www.booksie.com/young_adult/essay/amaria_c apstone/the-redwood-forest/chapter/1



where are you from? this CA or OR, right?
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bombs out west of Massachusetts.
Probably boston would get the most snow from this run, although its a bit far out for the most snow:



Dragod66 would get it though

btw @NWSJacksonMS is tweeting damage photos.
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HE FLASH FLOOD WATCH CONTINUES FOR

* PORTIONS OF NORTH AND CENTRAL GEORGIA...GENERALLY SOUTH OF A
LINE FROM BUCHANAN...TO ATLANTA...TO DANIELSVILLE...AND NORTH OF
A LINE FROM COLUMBUS...TO MACON...TO WARRENTON.

* UNTIL 1 PM EST THIS AFTERNOON

* THROUGH TODAY...MODERATE TO LOCALLY HEAVY RAINFALL CONTINUES
ACROSS CENTRAL GEORGIA THIS MORNING. SINCE SUNDAY AFTERNOON
BETWEEN ONE HALF TO ONE AND A HALF INCHES OF RAINFALL HAS FALLEN
ACROSS MUCH OF THE AREA. AN ADDITIONAL INCH TO INCH AND A HALF
OF RAINFALL IS POSSIBLE ACROSS THE WATCH AREA THIS MORNING.
LOCALLY HIGHER AMOUNTS ARE POSSIBLE WHERE STORMS MOVE REPEATEDLY
OR WHERE THUNDERSTORMS DEVELOP.

* RECENT RAINFALL HAS MADE THE SOIL VERY MOIST ACROSS PARTS OF
CENTRAL GEORGIA. ADDITIONAL HEAVY RAINFALL MAY LEAD TO FLASH
FLOODING ALONG SMALL STREAMS AND CREEKS. FLOODING WILL ALSO BE
POSSIBLE ALONG LARGER STREAMS AND RIVERS.
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Quoting trHUrrIXC5MMX:


that's how it looks at mu place except the toad is plowed
Wonder how the Toad feels about that? :) :P
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"We should not be surprised to see climate change causing significant changes in the frequency and intensity of Nor'easters"..

so Nea..is Dr. Masters a fool?

"Only a fool would make the claim that tomorrow's potentially historic nor'easter will be "caused" by global warming--and only a bigger fool would make the claim that anyone credible has said that. After all, there's a whole world of difference between saying climate change caused a specific weather event and saying climate change made that specific weather event worse. Denialists know that, which is why they desperately work themselves into a lather making lame strawman arguments in the hopes that the lesser-informed won't recognize the difference."
Member Since: August 19, 2006 Posts: 13 Comments: 15744
We've seen powerful winter storms like this in the past. You need cold air to mix with warm to produce a storm. Where's the proof that MAN is creating global warming? Can't be proven. The earth has had far greater cataclysmic events in history than can be accounted for by our very recent technological meteorological studies. More people in the way, more people able to report in greater detail than in our not-so-distant past.

In short, I'm sorry Dr. Masters, but I just can't agree with you that man is responsible. Man has a tough enough time just putting together a regular or long-range forecast, much less determining if and how the earth is warming. And two other things can be said: one is censorship on the part of people that disagree with global warming and two is the cause of land mass changes occurring due to melting ice, which is a lot of hogwash.

Perhaps the earth is still recovering from the mini ice-age, prior to which, Greenland was actually green, viable farmland. It isn't today because we may still be recovering from anomalous cold rather than creating anomalous warm climate.

In short, climatology has become pure politics and greed. India and China are doing far more to the environment than we ever did, yet where is all the noise about their activity? The UN can just get off our backs about the way we live.
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Thanks Dr. Masters.

NPR did a segment on Friday about rebuilding vs. not rebuilding in one locale after Hurricane Sandy.
Transcript and podcast here: Link
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FLOOD STATEMENT
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE BIRMINGHAM AL
1015 AM CST MON FEB 11 2013

ALC001-047-051-085-087-091-101-105-111700-
/O.CON.KBMX.FA.W.0011.000000T0000Z-130211T1700Z/
/00000.0.ER.000000T0000Z.000000T0000Z.000000T0000 Z.OO/
DALLAS AL-ELMORE AL-LOWNDES AL-MACON AL-MARENGO AL-MONTGOMERY AL-
PERRY AL-AUTAUGA AL-
1015 AM CST MON FEB 11 2013

...THE FLOOD WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 1100 AM CST FOR
AUTAUGA...PERRY...MONTGOMERY...NORTHEASTERN MARENGO...MACON...
LOWNDES...ELMORE AND DALLAS COUNTIES...

AT 1011 AM CST SOME SCATTERED LIGHT TO MODERATE RAINFALL CONTINUED
TO SPREAD ACROSS THE AREA. LATEST REPORTS FROM LOCAL OFFICIALS
INDICATED THAT SOME FLOODING WAS OCCURRING ON ASTRO AVENUE IN
CANDLESTICK PARK IN PRATTVILLE...AND ON COUNTY ROAD 29 OFF OF
HIGHWAY 14. JUG FACTORY ROAD IN WETUMPKA WAS ALSO REPORTED TO BE
CLOSED. SOME FLOODING OF STREETS AND ROADWAYS WILL CONTINUE ACROSS
THE AREA AS RUNOFF FROM EARLIER RAINFALL CONTINUES.

A FLOOD WARNING MEANS THAT FLOODING IS IMMINENT OR HAS BEEN REPORTED.
STREAM RISES WILL BE SLOW AND FLASH FLOODING IS NOT EXPECTED.
HOWEVER...ALL INTERESTED PARTIES SHOULD TAKE NECESSARY PRECAUTIONS
IMMEDIATELY.

EXCESSIVE RUNOFF FROM HEAVY RAINFALL WILL CAUSE FLOODING OF SMALL
CREEKS AND STREAMS...HIGHWAYS AND UNDERPASSES. ADDITIONALLY...COUNTRY
ROADS AND FARMLANDS ALONG THE BANKS OF CREEKS...STREAMS AND OTHER LOW
LYING AREAS ARE SUBJECT TO FLOODING.
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Quoting LargoFl:
Just try to imagine this...Miss/Alabama..right now at 20 degree's....there would be more snow there than the highest amount that fell in the northeast...1 inch of rain about equals 1 foot of snow..they have had many many inches already and days yet to come...


1 inch fell because it was warmer.
cold air holds less moisture, and we get our deep moisture from the GOM.
to get deep moisture here, we need to pull up gulf air, but that air is warm, so it wouldnt snow.

Thats why when it snows in AL/GA we max out at 6 inches or so. thats .6" rain, about all we can get from cold air.
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Model Analysis and Guidance 12z
Member Since: March 1, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 6932

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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