The extreme 2017 Atlantic hurricane season made a lot of people take notice. However, what about that other Atlantic cyclone, the North Easter? If you think these wintertime Atlantic storms are getting worse and more frequent, you are right. And if you believe climate change may be part of it, well, most climate scientists will agree with you.
What is a North Easter?
“What is nor easter?” you might ask.
A North Easter, or nor’ easter, as some call it, is an Atlantic cyclone, similar to a hurricane. The name comes from the direction of the storm’s strongest winds. As the storm makes landfall, the winds tend to be spinning northeast to southwest. The name actually covers a couple of different kinds of storms. Some bring rain, others bring snow and all bring high winds, waves, and destruction.
How is it Different from a Hurricane?
Because a North Easter is a kind of cyclone, people sometimes confuse them with other types of cyclones, like hurricanes. But the North Easter is different in several fundamental ways. Here’s how.
Nor’easters are cold core low-pressure systems. That means that they get their power from the contrast between cold air temperatures and warmer water surface temperatures. Hurricanes are warm core low-pressure systems. They get their power from warm temperatures. Many believe that climate change may be making both kinds of storms more intense. Air temperatures in sub-polar northern areas are getting colder, while air temperatures in southern climes are getting warmer. In addition, sea surface temperatures are rising everywhere. These things give additional fuel to the different kinds of cyclones that occur in each area.
The Nor Easter season is October through March. It is a wintertime storm. Hurricane season comes earlier: June through November, peaking in September. Although Nor’easters are cyclones like hurricanes, it’s not uncommon for them to dump massive amounts of snow, as well as rain, depending on the time of year.
Hurricanes and typhoons are tropical cyclones. That is, they form in tropical areas. Nor’easters are extratropical cyclones. That is, they form in middle latitudes, not in tropical regions. Many people associate the North Easter with the North Atlantic seaboard, specifically New England. However, they can form as far south as North Carolina. In addition, they can bring strong winds and high waves as far all the way down to South Carolina and Georgia.
How it Forms
Nor’easters form because of a sharp contrast between the warmth of the Gulf Stream moving north, and cold air moving south from Canada. When the frigid, dry air meets the warm Gulf Stream current, this creates a low-pressure system. Hurricanes are also low-pressure systems. The more significant the difference in temperature between the two masses of air, the stronger the storm will be. Unfortunately, climate change is making air colder in northern climates and warmer in southern climates. This has led many climate scientists to conclude that Nor’Easters will become more severe over time.
The North Easter also often involves bombogenesis or explosive cyclogenesis. That sounds dramatic and it can be. Basically, explosive cyclogenesis means that the storm gets very intense very quickly.
Another thing that distinguishes the Nor’easter from other cyclones is its unique combination of northeast winds and a specific moisture content inside its swirling clouds.
Are Northeastern Storms on the Increase?
Yes, unfortunately. East Coast weather is getting worse. Climate scientist Don Wuebbels told National Geographic, climate scientists called it. According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, the heavy storms that have battered the East Coast for years have increased by 70 percent over the past sixty years. These include rainstorms, blizzards and, yes, North Easters. National Geographic also notes that the most intense of these storms now drop 71 percent more precipitation than they did before 1960. The climate is changing all over, but North East weather appears to be getting the brunt of it.
Notable North Easters in Recent History
How bad can a North Easter get? Pretty bad, and in a number of different ways. Here’s a sampling of some notable Nor’easters from the past three decades. Some are unusual because of the damage they caused, to people, property, or both. Others can form in unexpected places. Some produced weather that people had never seen before in certain areas — like snow in the deep south. Some were very large and very, very intense.
The 1993 Storm of the Century
The 1993 superstorm, which some called the Storm of the Century, was notable for several reasons.
First, unlike most North Easters, it formed in the Gulf of Mexico. It also developed late in the season — in mid-March. In addition, it caused unprecedented low barometric pressures along the southeast and mid-Atlantic.
People will probably remember the human toll most of all. The storm charged across the most densely populated part of the United States. Scientists estimate that the 1993 superstorm affected 40 percent of the entire U.S. population. The storm closed every single airport on the East Coast at one point. In addition, it dropped 44,000,000 acre-feet of rain. That’s enough water to flood 44 million acres of land one foot deep. If that wasn’t enough, it bombarded the east coast with 13 cubic miles of snow.
The Storm of the Century caused $6.65 billion in damage and killed 300 people. That’s the largest death toll from a winter storm since 1888.
January of 2011
January of 2011 saw two significant North Easters, just two weeks apart. During the first one, meteorologists recorded 40 inches of snow in Savoy, MA — a new record. The death toll, thankfully, was very low — just two people. But the storms severely crippled New England and the mid-Atlantic states.
The first storm, from January 8 to January 13, dropped snow and ice onto a number of places that don’t usually get either. These included Texas, parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and North and South Carolina.
The second storm, from January 25 to January 27, hit the Northeast and caused one of several blizzards that year. The snowstorms resulted in the loss of an estimated 150,000 jobs.
The 2011 Halloween North Easter
People called this storm the Halloween Nor’easter, Snowtober, Storm Alfred, and Oktoberblast. It formed southeast of the Carolinas, and moved up from there, causing an unusually early first snow. In addition, it created record snowfall and a “White Halloween” in at least twenty cities. Trees and branches collapsed under the heavy snowfall, causing considerable damage to power lines. In some places, the power outages lasted as long as 11 days. The estimated cost of this storm was between $1 billion and $3 billion.
This was the 13th multi-billion dollar storm in 2011, breaking the earlier record of nine in the year 2008. Sadly, this storm claimed 39 lives.
2018 North American Bomb Cyclone
On January 3, 2018, blizzard warnings went out across a large part of the East Coast, from Virginia to Maine. Numerous states declared a state of emergency. Airports canceled flights ahead of the expected blizzard.
The storm was a “bomb cyclone,” that is a cyclonic storm that became very intense very quickly. In fact, it was one of the fastest developing cyclones ever observed in the Atlantic. The drop in pressure was over twice the threshold for bombogenesis. The storm ended up dumping snow and ice in places that rarely see it, including Florida and Georgia. In addition, the Mid Atlantic states, New England, and parts of Canada saw over two feet of snow.
The storm claimed 22 lives, and at least 300,000 people lost electricity.
Yes, The Northeastern Storms Are Getting Worse
Climate change is causing weather change. We see more storms of higher intensity and more intense storms with greater frequency. The storms that happen are causing more damage than ever — sometimes in places that don’t expect that kind of damage at all.
Severe weather can happen anytime, and anywhere. Know what sort of extreme weather might affect your area, and make a plan to survive it. Ready.gov can help with tips, toolkits, and preparation strategies. We may not be able to control the weather, but we can prepare ourselves for it.
Featured image: CC 3.0, by The Snowy Blizzard, via Wikimedia