AER Northeast Blizzard of 2013 Post-Storm Analysis

The month of February has featured blockbuster snowstorms for the Northeast including the ‘Lindsay Storm’ in 1969 (named after the then-mayor of New York City), two Presidents’ Day weekend snowstorms (1979 and 2003), and the back-to-back heavy snowstorms for the Mid-Atlantic in 2010 (sometimes referred to as ‘Snowmaggedon’). For New England, one February storm is especially iconic – the Blizzard of 1978 (5-7 February 1978), a storm that dropped over 2 to almost 4 feet of snow in parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Hence, the forecast for an impending huge snowstorm to impact New England just after the 35th anniversary of the Blizzard of 1978 seemed almost scripted.

This post-storm analysis of the Northeast Blizzard of 2013 highlights key aspects of the storm, including its development and intensification, storm totals, and iconic images of the storm that will likely live on in similar ways to the Blizzard of 1978.

Anatomy and Lifecycle of the Storm

The Blizzard of 2013 was born out of two separate systems that combined into one powerful storm off of the Northeastern coast Friday night (referred to in meteorology as phasing). While phasing is often difficult for our weather models to forecast accurately, the European model in particular forecasted this phasing up to 6 days prior to the storm. Other models quickly followed suit by midweek. Hence, by 6 February 2013, confidence was very high about a major, even record-breaking, snowstorm impacting the Northeast. The development of the storm can be seen in the series of the surface weather maps shown in Figure 1.

FIG. 1. Surface weather maps illustrating the development and strengthening of the Blizzard of 2013. Surface maps given for (a) Friday, 8 February 2013, 7 AM EST, (b) Friday, 8 February 2013, 7 PM EST, (c) Saturday, 9 February 2013, 7 AM EST, and (d) Saturday, 9 February 2013, 7 PM EST. Maps courtesy of the NOAA Hydrometeorological Prediction Center (HPC).

On 8 February 2013 at 7 AM EST (Fig. 1a), two storm systems were converging onto the Northeast. The first was a center of low pressure over Cleveland, OH bringing moderate snow over much of the Upper Midwest, southern Ontario, and upstate New York. By itself, this area of low pressure was quite impressive, bringing over 12” of snow to Toronto, the biggest snowstorm in the city in 5 years. The second storm system, situated over Elizabeth City, NC, was quite moisture-rich as it had traversed the Gulf Coast in the days before. Overrunning rain and snow spread across parts of the Mid-Atlantic and New England starting Friday morning. The other main player was a strong Arctic high over Québec, supplying cold air at the surface and throughout the lower levels of the atmosphere into the Northeast.

As the day progressed, the low pressure center over the Great Lakes region weakened, and the coastal low deepened and moved northeastward. By the evening of 8 February (Fig. 1b), the first low pressure center nearly vanished in favor of a 980 mb low south of New England. Accompanying this rapidly deepening offshore storm was an increase in snow, both in areal coverage and intensity. Much like a tropical system, intense snowfall were concentrated in bands that rotated from the storm center into interior New England. One such very intense band developed south of Long Island and rotated into central CT, dropping 3-5” of snow per hour along with thunder and lightning (Figure 2). This band eventually weakened and settled across central CT into central MA and southern NH overnight on Saturday.

FIG. 2. Radar image from the NWS Upton, NY radar taken at Friday, 8 February 2013, 9:53 PM EST. Note the intense band seen in central CT, exceeding 50 dBz in spots. This region experienced high snowfall rates (3-5” per hour), sleet, and also thunder and lightning.

Heavy snow and increasing winds continued for all of Southern and Eastern New England throughout Friday night and Saturday morning as the storm system deepened and moved eastward. Winds gusted near hurricane force (65-80 mph) along the Massachusetts coast Friday night. By dawn on Saturday, the storm system was situated east of Boston, became completely occluded, and had a central pressure was down to ~972 mb (Fig. 1c). Over 2 feet of snow had been deposited from Westchester County, NY to Long Island and throughout much of New England. Wind and snows gradually winded down through Saturday for Boston and Providence, with precipitation ending on outer Cape Cod during the evening hours.

However, on Saturday, the storm system arguably displayed its most impressive features as it continued to deepen, including an eye-like feature captured in visible satellite imagery (Figure 3), looking more like a hurricane than a mid-latitude storm system. By Saturday night, the storm system had pulled well east of New England (Fig. 1d), and clearing skies foretold a very cold night for freshly snow-covered region.

FIG. 3. Visible satellite image of the Blizzard of 2013, taken on Saturday 9 February 2013 at 2:45 PM EST. The system has an eye-like feature and bears strong resemblance to a tropical cyclone or hurricane.

Storm Impacts

The impacts of the Blizzard of 2013 covered numerous fronts (pun unintended). First, of course, were the impressive snowfall amounts recorded throughout the Northeast. There were numerous reports of two-three feet of snow from Long Island and Connecticut into central and even parts of northern New England. Record snowfall was set in many locales. Record snowfall was set in many locales. Select cities and their snowfall totals are included in Table 1.

                                                                                                

Table 1. Snowfall totals from the Blizzard of 2013 from select cities throughout the Northeast, including applicable records for highest snowfall from a single storm. Totals courtesy of the National Weather Service.
City Storm Snow Totals       Notes
Hamden, CT 40.0 inches  
New Haven, CT 34.3 inches 2nd all-time highest snowfall
Portland, ME 31.9 inches All-time highest snowfall
Upton, NY 30.9 inches All-time highest snowfall
Worcester, MA 28.7 inches 3rd all-time highest snowfall
Augusta, ME 28.0 inches  
Boston (Logan), MA 24.9 inches 5th all-time highest snowfall
Concord, NH 24.0 inches All-time highest snowfall*
Hartford (Windsor Locks), CT 22.8 inches 2nd all-time highest snowfall
Providence (TF Green), RI 18.0 inches Tied-6th all time highest snowfall
New York City (Central Park). NY 11.5 inches  
Nantucket, MA 6.3 inches  
*This total is the highest on record when modern official records started in 1905. However, there are reports of 27.5 inches falling in Concord, during a storm in 1888. Hence, whether the Blizzard of 2013’s total is the official record or not is inconclusive.

The second aspect of the storm included the wind, which occurred Friday night across New England coinciding with the rapid deepening of the storm system south of the area (Table 2). Sustained and gusty winds coupled with the heavy, wet nature of the snow along coastal New England led to many trees down and consequently power lines. At one time, almost 800,000 people in southeastern New England were without power.

Table 2. Maximum wind gusts during the Blizzard of 2013 from select sites across the Northeast.
Site Maximum Wind Gust
Falmouth, MA  83 mph
Hyannis, MA 77 mph
Boston (Logan), MA 76 mph
Plum Island, NY 75 mph
Scituate, MA 68 mph
Jamestown, RI 68 mph
East Hampton, NY 65 mph
Groton, CT 60 mph

An additional aspect of the storm was the significant coastal flooding that took place across much of east coastal Massachusetts. Combined with building swells from a deepening storm system and increasing winds, Friday night and Saturday morning also featured astronomically high tides. Storm surge and wave action (over 20-25 ft waves along east coastal Massachusetts) partially breached seawalls in places like Scituate MA and flooded nearby homes and streets throughout coastal areas with up to 1-2 feet of water.

Summary

The Blizzard of 2013 will most certainly be a standout storm for many years to come. The setup and development of the storm was nearly textbook-like, with the phasing of two systems and cold-air damming established with an Arctic high over Québec. Like many big Northeast snowstorms, this storm was also well forecasted, and public preparedness and awareness was notably high in the days leading up to the storm. This latter aspect was a huge factor in limiting injuries and casualties throughout the region.

I have included selected photos of the storm from various sources. While meteorologists (myself included) will marvel at the size of the storm, its evolution and development, and the accuracy of the forecasts, oftentimes photographs are the most powerful element for conveying the sheer awesomeness of an historic event like the Blizzard of 2013.

Coastal flooding inundates a gazebo on Nantucket Island, MA.  Photo courtesy of WCVB

Coastal flooding inundates a gazebo on Nantucket Island, MA. Photo courtesy of WCVB.

 

A downed tree blocks an entire street and takes down power lines in Kingston, MA
A downed tree blocks an entire street and takes down power lines in Kingston, MA. Photo courtesy of Cortney Shepard, Operational Meteorologist, AER.

 

Boston residents dig out their cars after the blizzard. Photo courtesy of Winslow Townsend / Associated Press
Boston residents dig out their cars after the blizzard. Photo courtesy of Winslow Townsend / Associated Press

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