Perhaps no combination of superlatives could do justice to the historic snowstorm that delivered a crippling wallop to parts of the mid-Atlantic and Northeast over the weekend. Widely referred to by its social media moniker, “Snowtober,” the storm smashed records that had stood since the beginning of the reliable instrument record in the late 1800s (and in some cases, even longer than that), and upended assumptions about what a fall nor’easter can do. The heavy, wet snow pasted onto trees still bearing foliage in many areas and weighed down power lines, knocking out power to at least three million people in the region.
The paralyzing storm overturned generations of commonly held wisdom that held that the first big snows don’t normally come before Thanksgiving for most areas, certainly not prior to Halloween. Late last week, as computer models began to lock onto a snowy forecast scenario, many meteorologists (including those of us at CWG) struggled with believing what the computers were projecting, given its unprecedented nature.
Coming in the midst of what is already one of the most extreme years in American weather history, the Snowtober event had a greater impact in some states than August’s much-hyped Tropical Storm Irene. It was the snowstorm, not Irene, which caused the largest power outage in Connecticut history, for example.
To put the storm into its proper meteorological context, consider these snowy facts.
The storm brought thundersnow to New York City shortly past lunchtime on Saturday, October 29, before the city had even recorded its first freeze. Central Park received 2.9 inches of snow, with up to six inches falling in the Bronx. This was the only time in recorded history that an inch or more of snow has fallen in Central Park during the month of October. The combination of the heavy, wet snow and high winds damaged or destroyed hundreds of trees in the city. The New York Times reported that up to a thousand trees in Central Park could be lost due to storm-related damage.
The storm also pushed New York City closer to breaking the record for its all-time wettest year, moving 2011 into third place, with 65.75 inches of precipitation, which is more than two feet above normal for the year to date. The wettest year on record in New York was 1983, with 80.56 inches.
Jaffrey, New Hampshire, located in hilly terrain, recorded a whopping 31.4 inches from this snowstorm, an amount that would be considered impressive even in February, but is simply unheard of for October. There were reports that this was eclipsed by readings in Peru, Mass., where 32 inches fell.
The 22.5 inches that fell at Concord, New Hampshire between 3 pm on Saturday and 7 am on Sunday was the second-greatest 24-hour total ever recorded in any month – let alone just October – in that city’s history, a testament to the intensity of the precipitation that fell during this storm (h/t Christopher Burt ).
The National Weather Service has a full rundown of snowfall totals state by state. Bill Simpson, a Weather Service forecaster in Massachusetts may have described the event best when he told a Boston Globe reporter:
: “Fifteen thousand years ago, in the Ice Age, I’m sure they had more snow.”
“But for the modern day, this is unbelievable.”
October snowfall records were smashed in Hartford, Connecticut, which received 12.3 inches; Worcester, Mass., where 14.6 inches fell; and Newark, NJ, where 5.2 inches piled up. According to the National Weather Service, this was only the second time that measurable snowfall occurred in Newark during the month of October. The last time any snow piled up was in 1952, when just 0.3 inches fell. Much heavier snows, with greater damage, occurred in northwestern New Jersey, including 19 inches in West Milford.
As of this morning (Halloween), 86% of the Northeast had snow cover, averaging more than 4” deep according to NOAA.
The storm led Newark Mayor Cory Booker to tweet, “Snow in Oct, Earthquake, Hurricane, I think New Jersey needs 2 appease the weather Gods & sacrifice the TV show Jersey Shore. Cancel it!”
Coming so soon after Tropical Storms Irene and Lee, the snowstorm barreled through a particularly weather-weary part of the country. Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy appealed for a federal disaster declaration, and noted the rare nature of the storm.
Wunderground.com weather historian Christopher Burt called it “the most extraordinary October snowstorm in over two centuries in the Northeast U.S.”
The storm also wreaked havoc on transportation throughout New England, whether it was by car, bus, train, or aircraft. About two dozen flights, most of them international flights, diverted to Hartford’s Bradley International Airport when they couldn’t land in New York due to low visibility. But the volume of diversions overwhelmed workers there and wound up stranding passengers on board flights for hours, due to a lack of gates and airport power problems caused by the storm. The Hartford Courant told the tale of passengers on an ill-fated JetBlue flight that was diverted from Newark, New Jersey, and sat on the tarmac for seven hours.
Amtrak also suffered significant disruptions and suspended service on some lines. One particularly harrowing incident in western Mass. was relayed to NWS’ Boston office and appeared in their storm report summary: “AMTRAK TRAIN STOPPED DUE TO TREES ON THE TRACK ...PASSENGERS STRANDED WITH AN ADDITIONAL TREE FALLING ON THE TRAIN AS IT WAS STOPPED.” The Boston Globe had the full story behind that report .
It wasn’t just the snow, and the ensuing damage from weighed down trees and power lines, that made this storm so unusual. It was also an extremely intense storm, with a central pressure of 28.79 inches as of Sunday afternoon. The tight pressure gradient caused winds on the Massachusetts coastline to gust as high as 69 miles per hour. It’s conceivable that we won’t see another East Coast storm this powerful during the actual winter of 2011/12, although snow lovers surely are hoping that’s not the case.
“Snowtober” occurred during a year in which the U.S. has already suffered a record number of billion dollar weather disasters, including Irene; spring flooding along the Mississippi River, and the ongoing Texas drought. Scientific evidence continues to mount that certain types of extreme weather events, including heavy precipitation events (both heavy rain and snow) are becoming more common and severe due to global warming.
According to Wunderground’s Burt , although early and late season snowfalls should decrease as the world warms, “the climate models also predict that we may see an increase in the intensity of the strongest winter storms, like the Nor’easter that dumped the record October snows over the Northeast on Saturday, and it is important to realize that snow is not the same thing as cold. Temperatures in the Northeast U.S. were quite cold on Saturday, but no observing station there broke a record for coldest temperature for the day on October 29, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Our climate is still cold enough in October to give us the occasional early-season record snowstorm.”
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will issue a special report on climate change and extreme weather events on November 18.