Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.
By: Christopher C. Burt , 9:07 AM GMT on February 10, 2013
Winter Storm ‘Nemo’: A Historical Perspective
Winter storm ‘Nemo’ (as The Weather Channel’ has designated it), winded up this Saturday night although sea-effect snow showers continue to brush Cape Cod and Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. The storm was certainly among the top five to affect Southern New England and Maine and for some localities, the worst winter storm on record (going back 300 years since European inhabitants began keeping track of such things).
A satellite image of Nemo Saturday morning around 7 a.m. EST. The amazing structure of the storm resembles a hurricane with an eye structure. This feature was also seen with Sandy last October and the ‘Perfect Storm’ of October 28, 1991. However, in Nemo’s case this was a pure winter storm, not a hybrid tropical cum extra-tropical storm like Sandy and the 1991 event although there have been other winter storms in the past that also displayed a similar ‘eye’ structure. Photo from NASA.
Comparison to the Blizzard of March 11-14, 1888
There were many ways this storm was similar to the great Blizzard of March 1888. Both storms formed from similar synoptic situations; low pressure system/trough arriving from the west combined with low pressure center developing of the mid-Atlantic coast and then ‘bombing’ explosively south of Long Island and slowly tracking off to the northeast. The big difference between the blizzard of 1888 and Nemo was the location of where the ‘bombogenesis’ took place. In 1888 the storm center ‘bombed’ about 100 miles further to the southeast than where Nemo did such. Also, the 1888 storm actually made a small loop south of Long Island, unlike Nemo. This resulted in a mostly rain event for eastern Massachusetts (Boston just had 7” of slushy snow) and Maine in 1888 with the core of the heaviest snow falling from New York City north to Albany and east though western Massachusetts, Vermont, and Connecticut. So, amazing as Nemo was for the residents of Connecticut, the Blizzard of 1888 was more severe in terms of snowfall accumulations and blizzard conditions. For a detailed analysis of the Blizzard of 1888 see my blog on the subject posted last year.
It seems the highest snowfall report in Connecticut from Nemo has been 40” at Hamden. In 1888 the peak total was 50” at Middleton. Hartford received 36” during the Blizzard of 1888 (although the ‘official’ total was much lower since the observation site at that time was on a hill and the snow was mostly blown clear from the location). New Haven picked up 44.7” in 1888 versus 34” from Nemo. An interesting aside, is the intensity of the snowfall rates reached during Nemo’s peak. A public report mentions an astonishing 12” of snow fell in one 90-minute period at Coventry, Connecticut Friday night.
This is what 38” of snow looks like as photographed on Saturday morning, February 9th in Milford, Connecticut. There is a car buried in that driveway! Milford was in the epicenter of Nemo’s heaviest snow accumulation. Photo courtesy of Tom Crispino.
Long Island, New York has reported a peak snow accumulation of 33.5” at Medford from Nemo versus 36” at Babylon during the 1888 blizzard.
Some snowfall statistics comparing the Blizzard of 1888 to Nemo on Long Island and Connecticut (this table represents sites that we have records for from both storms):
It would therefore appear that the Blizzard of 1888 remains the worst blizzard in Connecticut and Long Island history with Nemo probably taking 2nd place.
Comparison to the great February Blizzard of 1978
Again the blizzard of February 7-8, 1978 followed a similar synoptic pattern as both the 1888 blizzard and the 2013 blizzard (a trough from west merging with a mid-Atlantic low and bombing out south of Long Island). However, in the 1978 case (and with Nemo) Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island received much greater snowfall totals than occurred in the blizzard of 1888.
Surface synoptic chart at the peak intensity of the Blizzard of 1978. Nemo deepened to 973 mb but did not have the intense high pressure (1048 mb) to its north and west like in 1978 (sorry, I can’t locate a similar synoptic map for Nemo), so the blizzard conditions (and wind speeds or cold) were not quite equal to the 1978 storm. Chart from Paul Kocin and Louis Uccellini’s groundbreaking book ‘Northeast Snowstorms’ published by the American Meteorological Society in 2004. You may be aware that Dr. Uccellini has just recently been appointed as the new director of the NWS (NOAA’s National Weather Service).
For the residents of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the Blizzard of February 1978 has been the benchmark winter storm of record. Although Boston has seen heavier snowfalls than what occurred in 1978 (the city’s all-time single deepest snow event remains the 27.5” that fell February 17-18, 2003) the winds and coastal flooding in 1978 were the worst Massachusetts have ever experienced from a blizzard in modern history. See Jeff Masters blog on the details of how the storm has affected the Boston area.
Boston’s top 10 greatest single snowstorms since records for such have been kept beginning in 1872. It is curious that most of these storms have occurred in relatively recent years.
It seems that Boston Logan Airport (official weather site for the city) received a total of 24.9” from Nemo. The storm surge at Boston from Nemo was just shy of that in 1978 (4.21’ versus 4.34’). Peak wind gusts appear to be comparable to the 1978 event although there were problems with some of the ASOS anemometer readings at the peak of Nemo’s fury. In any case, so far it seems Boston’s peak wind gust was 76 mph during Nemo versus 79 mph in 1978. Chatham, Massachusetts (Cape Cod reported a 93 mph gust in 1978 whereas the peak Nemo gust on the Cape or Islands from Nemo seems to have been 83 mph near Cutyhunk. The maximum snow accumulation in Massachusetts seems to be 31” at Spencer.
Rhode Island has so far reported a peak snowfall total of 27.6” at West Glocester from Nemo versus an official maximum of 38.0” at Woonsocket during the 1978 storm (with unofficial totals as high as 55” in Lincoln in 1978 (where drifts 27’ deep were reported!). For an in depth analysis of the February 1978 see this report prepared by NOAA.
So, in conclusion, I think it safe to say that the storm of February 7-8, 1978 remains the strongest blizzard on record for eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. However, Nemo would appear to be a close 2nd.
Maps comparing the storm total snowfalls for the blizzard of February 5-7, 1978 and that of the Blizzard of February 8-9, 2013. 1978 map from Kocin and Uccellini book ‘Northeast Snowstorms”. Bottom map courtesy of NWS-Taunton, Massachusetts.
Was Nemo the worst blizzard on record for coastal Maine?
The airport near Portland, Maine has received an all-time record single-snowstorm record accumulation of 31.9”. This has swept aside the previous official record of 27.1” set on January 17-18, 1979. However, the NWS office in downtown Portland has reported a total of only 26.4”. The peak snow total for any Maine site appears to be 35.5” at Gorham.
The great ‘Down East’ blizzard of December 29-30, 1962 brought a maximum snowfall of 46” at Ripogenus Dam and 40” in Orono (located about 10 miles northeast of Bangor—where 16-20” has been reported from Nemo so far). The 1962 blizzard is considered the worst on record for the central and eastern coastal portions of Maine. Portland received much lesser amounts but the storm was noted for the bitter cold and high winds that accompanied it. The temperature ranged between 0°F and -15°F during the storm with sustained winds of 20-40 mph.
So, it would appear that Nemo is the greatest snowstorm to affect the Portland area and southeastern portions of Maine but not record-setting in other portions of the state.
FEBRUARY 24-28, 1969
There are two other snow events of as great historical significance as Nemo so far as southern New England is concerned. These would be the 100-hour snow’ of February 24-28, 1969 and the ‘Great Snow of 1717’. In February 1969 a low pressure system stalled off the coast of Massachusetts and pounded the region with an almost continuous 100 hours of snowfall. Boston picked up 26.3” during the storm, Portland, Maine 26.9”, and Concord, New Hampshire 28.0”. Rockport, Massachusetts (on Cape Ann) received 39”. Inland, an astonishing 77” of snow accumulated at Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire between February 25-28 and Mt. Washington caught a 97.8” total from February 24-28, its greatest snowstorm on record. The storm, however, was not a true blizzard and was only noteworthy for its longevity and hence deep snow accumulations.
FEBRUARY 27-MARCH 7, 1717
As weather historian David M. Ludlum wrote in his book ‘New England Weather Book’:
”No natural event in colonial New England has achieved such reverential status as the Great Snow of 1717. Accounts appear in many local and regional histories and hardly a diarist fails to mention it.”
This storm, or rather series of 4 storms (two major and two minor), pounded southern New England over a 10-day period February 27-March 7 and deposited a level four feet of accumulation in Boston and environs. The Rev. Cotton Mather wrote, “As mighty a snow, as perhaps known in the memory of man, is at this time lying on the ground”. Specific details are lacking but this event remained the benchmark for the following 160 years (until the Blizzard of 1888) so far as contemporary snowfall events.
It can probably be said that winter storm Nemo was the 2nd most intense winter storm event for Long Island, Connecticut, eastern Massachusetts, and perhaps Rhode Island. 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. For southeastern Maine it would appear that Nemo has been the most extreme snowstorm on record. Of course, this is a broad statement and for some localities in Connecticut and Massachusetts Nemo may have been even worse than the storms of 1888 and 1978 and for other localities in the region other major snowstorms may have been worse than any one of the three.
I might add that 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.
Christopher C. Burt
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