There are many things we can call the snowstorm that slammed into the Northeast last Friday. Eliminating those that I would not want my 10-year-old niece to read in her uncle’s column, we can start with the classic term: a nor’easter.
People who live along the Eastern Seaboard from the Carolinas northward know what a nor’easter is, but friends who live in the western states often ask me to explain. A nor’easter is a storm that tracks over the ocean or sometimes over the coastal plain, bringing strong winds that blow out of the northeast as the center of the storm approaches. The term dates back to the days of sailing ships. Nor’easters can occur at any time of year, but they are most frequent and intense from late fall to early spring. In winter a nor’easter usually means heavy snow away from the coast, while coastal locations may see rain or snow. Snow becomes less common as you move southward down the shoreline.
The really significant storms are often remembered by their nicknames. People in New York City still talk about the Blizzard of ’88 - meaning the storm that struck the region in March of 1888, not anything that happened in 1988. None of us was alive to see the Blizzard of ’88, but we talk about it anyway, recounting stories of hardship that have been handed down through generations.
In my lifetime there was the Lindsay Snowstorm of 1969, whose anniversary was this weekend, in which Mayor John V. Lindsay caught political hell for allowing Queens to freeze over; the Blizzard of ’78, which paralyzed the Boston region; the Storm of the Century in 1993, still remembered by nearly everyone over age 30 who lived east of a line from Buffalo to Nashville to Pensacola, Fla.; and the Blizzard of 1996, which brought 30 inches of snow to some suburbs in northeastern New Jersey. There have been some other record-setting storms since then, but I am skipping the 21st century examples that are still more like news than history.
And these are just a few snowstorms. There were many other nor’easters that brought only rain and high winds to the big cities, though some of them were heavy snow producers inland. There was a monstrous Thanksgiving storm in 1971, the Perfect Storm of Hollywood fame in 1991, and of course Superstorm Sandy in 2012. All could be called nor’easters, though the latter two had tropical as well as extratropical lineage.
More recently, the Weather Channel has taken to naming extratropical storms the way the National Weather Service names hurricanes. Last week’s storm was given the name Nemo, which just seems like a deliberate insult to a cute cartoon fish. Having seen the movie, I would have opted for “Sharkbait,” but that’s probably why nobody listens to my ideas. Besides, I would really just disregard these names. They are more about the Weather Channel’s branding efforts than about meteorology, anyway.
To a true weather geek, last week’s cyclone was a classic Miller B snowstorm - not to be confused with a Miller A snowstorm. I will explain the difference, of course, because I signed up for a lifetime membership in the weather geek club a long time ago.
A Miller A snowstorm is a non-tropical weather system that develops in the Deep South or the Gulf of Mexico, usually starting with an impulse moving eastward out of Mexico or the southwestern deserts. The storm draws plenty of moisture from the Gulf and proceeds up the East Coast from about Savannah, Ga., tapping still more moisture from the Atlantic and throwing it over the top of a cold air mass on the mainland to the west.
The 1993 Storm of the Century was a Miller A storm on steroids, with intense low pressure that is almost never seen outside of hurricanes. Another memorable Miller A happened in December 1989 and produced a white Christmas in places like Jacksonville, Fla., and Charleston, S.C., which had not had snow on the ground at Christmas in about a century or more. Miller A storms often track very close to the coastline or even over land, dumping their greatest snowfalls in the Appalachians to the west, in places like Asheville, N.C.
Miller B systems are a little more complicated. They start with an ordinary low pressure system, often an Alberta Clipper, which moves through the Midwest and dies out over the Appalachians or the Great Lakes. A new storm then forms offshore, somewhere between North Carolina and southern New Jersey, and moves up the coastline and out to sea off New England. These storms usually spare most of the region south of Virginia from heavy snow, and they can also miss much of the mid-Atlantic while pounding eastern New England. Miller B storms have been known to grind traffic to a halt in the Hamptons while leaving New York City roads perfectly open. (Someone who knows the area might say that it sounds like any summer weekend, with the addition of snow plows.)
The early settlers at Jamestown, Va., were probably surprised at the intensity of Miller B storms, which usually produce heavy rain and high winds in southeastern Virginia, just as Friday’s storm did. The Pilgrims who settled in Massachusetts were surely stunned when they got a taste of nor’easters that keep coming, like a long freight train, in an endless parade up the New England coastline.
Whatever we call them, nor’easters have been a feature of the East Coast since long before Europeans settled there, long before the Industrial Revolution, and long before we started attributing every passing storm to global climate change. In fact, nor’easters are a climate feature that, for practical purposes, has not changed.
From the Blizzard of ’88 to the Storm-They-Didn’t-Name-Sharkbait-In-2013, these shore-hugging storms have been a constant feature of life in a corner of the world that has a lot of interesting weather. Call them whatever you want. But if you want to get into the weather geek club, call last week’s system a Miller B.