11.4 Recent New England Weather Extremes: Past, Present, and Future

Friday, 20 June 2014: 3:00 PM
Alpine Ballroom (Resort at Squaw Creek)
Matthew Cappucci, STUDENT, Plymouth, MA

As the old adage goes, "if you don't like the weather in New England, wait fifteen minutes." From blizzards to hurricanes, tornadoes to ice storms, New England has certainly seen it's fair share of extreme weather events in the past few years. A look back in time reveals similar events that have plagued the region in the past, as well as the impacts that we could face in the future do to climate change.

On June 1, 2011, residents of Southern New England turned on the television, greeted with the sight of the devastation caused by the Joplin, MS EF-5 tornado. Little did they know, however, that by nightfall, they themselves would become victims of a similar predicament.

Shown live on television, a tornado formed over the Connecticut River in Springfield, MA (population 175,000). This tornado traveled east at about 40 miles per hour, causing 4 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and widening to over a half mile in diameter. A PDS tornado warning was issued by the NWS Taunton, and for the first time in 14 years, "Perfect Paul" (the voice of the NOAA Weather Radio) was interrupted by a NWS employee urging all listeners in the area to take shelter.

With winds of 160 miles per hour scouring Brimfield, Monson, and Sturbrige, MA, the tornado was rated as a strong EF-3 (borderline EF-4) tornado. Accompanying the storm were 90+ mile per hour mircobursts, as well as grapefruit to bowling ball size hail. This storm proved to residents of Western New England that severe weather can, and does, strike just about anywhere. At precisely 5:27 PM, the tornado, after a 70 minute, 39-mile-long rampage, dissipated, near Charleston, MA.

More familiar to New Englanders, however, than severe convection are the Nor'easters that habitually strike New England time and time again every winter. To many, it was the blockbuster blizzard that will go down in history among the most significant winter storms- “the Blizzard of '78”, the “April Fools Day Storm (1997)”, and the great “Hundred-Hour Snowstorm (1969)”. First mentioned in forecasts on Tuesday, February 5th, scientists stood in awe as dozens of individual parameters combined perfectly to deliver a historic snowstorm.

The massive storm was a result of three different weather systems coming together off the coast of the Carolinas, similar in manner to “the Perfect Storm” of 1991. Conditions progressively deteriorated shortly after noon on Friday, February 8, suddenly becoming extreme at around 7:00 PM. As evening broke, the heaviest of the snow bands in the intensifying system came ashore over Long Island and Connecticut, moving east and impacting Cape Cod and Southeastern Massachusetts by about 8 PM. One particularly vigorous snow band in Connecticut produced nearly unheard of snowfall rates in excess of a half foot per hour, accompanied by heavy thunder, lightning, and pea to dime sized hail. At this point, radar reflectivities exceeded 60 decibels in the heavy snow band.

Hurricane-force wind gusts exceeding 80 miles per hour reduced visibilities to near zero, and wrought more havoc in our area than Hurricanes Sandy or Irene. Falmouth recorded a wind gust to 83 miles per hour (12:33 AM on the 9th), Hyannis to 77 (11:45 PM on the 8th), while Logan Airport gusted to 76 miles per hour on the night of the 8th, when the brunt of the storm roared ashore. In order for a storm to be classified as a blizzard, it must produce wind gusts exceeding 35 miles per hour for three consecutive hours. Such was the case across much of the coastal plain of Southern New England during the storm, christened “Nemo” by the Weather Channel. As the storm raced into Southern Canada, a wind gust of 102 miles per hour was recorded.

The system actually developed an eye in the center, behaving in many ways like a hurricane. Many people believed it was far worse than any of the hurricanes that New England had recently experienced. In New England alone, Irene and Sandy together caused dozens of deaths and an estimated $18 Billion in damages. While only 'minor' hurricanes, the two produced copious amounts of moisture that resulted in mudslides, with much of Vermont particularly hard-hit. Many locals have forgotten what happened in 1938, when a strong category 3 hurricane producing category 5 winds and an 18' storm surge killed 695 people in our area. One must wonder what the economic and societal impact of such a storm will be next time, as inevitably such a calamity will happen again.

New England has an 'extreme' climate, with locals eventually learning to adapt. A closer look illustrates just how varied and severe our weather can be, and the impacts of increasingly extreme weather in the future.

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