The unusual winter storm that pasted parts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina with ice and snow Wednesday explosively intensified Wednesday night becoming one of the strongest East Coast winter storms in modern history.
Blizzard warnings extend from the Virginia Tidewater region up the coast to eastern Maine, including Ocean City, Atlantic City, eastern Long Island, Boston and Portland, Maine. These locations have all witnessed extremely heavy snow, exceeding a foot in some locations, and wind gusts of at least 40 to 60 mph.
Between Wednesday and Thursday morning, the storm strengthened at an astonishing rate, surpassing the meteorological criteria to be considered a so-called “bomb cyclone.” A storm is classified as such if its pressure falls 24 millibars in 24 hours. This storm’s pressure tanked 53 millibars in 21 hours (and 59 millibars in 24 hours), which puts it into the upper echelon of the most explosive East Coast storms ever observed — and perhaps even at the top.
As the storm blossomed Wednesday and early Thursday with thunderstorms erupting around its comma-shaped center, forecasters expressed pure awe at the meteorological marvel. “Jaw, meet floor,” tweeted Sam Lillo, a meteorology PhD student. The storm expanded over enormous territory, even drawing moisture from deep in the Caribbean.
The National Weather Service warned the storm’s howling winds would likely result in power outages. On Thursday afternoon, several wind gusts of at least 70 mph were clocked in coastal Massachusetts, including around Nantucket
“This storm is intense,” tweeted the National Weather Service office in Boston. “Expect the unexpected.”
At the coast, major flood was reported in eastern New England as the ocean swelled ashore. The Weather Service tweeted Boston’s tide observation was nearing its highest level ever recorded (since 1921) early Thursday afternoon. It said it was getting “inundated with coastal flood reports…some of the worst in recent history.”
Offshore New England and Nova Scotia, models predicted wave heights up to five stories tall.
The fast-moving storm is expected to pass by Thursday night when the blizzard warnings will expire, but, in its wake, the mother lode of numbing cold is forecast to crash south — likely to be the last but most bitter in brutal blasts since Christmas Eve in the Northeast.
The storm: How much snow, wind, flooding, and where
On Thursday evening, the sprawling storm was hammering the Northeast coast, while snows were tapering off in the Mid-Atlantic.
Virginia Beach witnessed several hours straight of moderate to heavy snow and winds gusting to 50 to 55 mph Thursday morning, before letting up in the afternoon. Norfolk International Airport reported 10 inches from the storm.
Similar conditions were observed in Ocean City, which received 11.0 inches.
In Atlantic City, meteorologist Joe Martucci reported snow “blowing and drifting at its finest” and “ amounts climbed to 16 inches in parts of South Jersey. Atlantic City International Airport posted 12.7 inches of snow at 1 p.m.
Heavy snow and winds gusting to 30 mph were blasting New York City, under a winter storm warning. Whiteout conditions temporarily suspended flights at JFK airport, where the wind gusted as high as 55 mph. Central Park reported 7.8 inches of snow at 1 p.m.
On Long Island, conditions were even more severe. Islip airport reported five straight hours of heavy snow, 3-inch per hour snowfall rates, and wind gusts to 45 mph – veritable blizzard conditions. Its snow total climbed to 13.6 inches.
Near-blizzard conditions also hammered Providence, where heavy snow had fallen for seven straight hours with frequent wind gusts of 40 to 45 mph. 8 to 10 inches were reported on the ground.
Heavy snow and wind gusts to 40 mph began raking Boston late Thursday morning into the afternoon. At 1 p.m. Boston’s Logan Airport reported 6.5 inches of snow. To its south, at the Weather Service office in Taunton, 14.6 inches were measured through mid-afternoon.
As the wind and waves slammed into the shore in eastern New England, major coastal flooding was reported midday and early afternoon in eastern Massachusetts. In Scituate, Mass., social media video showed the ocean taking over streets.
The Weather Service cautioned the flooding could cause major impacts, inundating roads and basements. “In a few spots, sea ice chunks may exacerbate damage,” it said. Social media scenes provided validation of this threat:
The Weather Service warned residents to “stay away from the coastline and do not drive through flooded roads.”
Due to the rip-roaring winds, the Weather Service said it was particularly concerned about the power outage threat in eastern New England, especially considering the bitter cold predicted to follow the storm.
The cold in its wake: record-breaking
The storm’s enormous circulation will help draw several lobes of the polar vortex, the zone of frigid air encircling the North Pole, over the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast by Friday and Saturday. Wicked cold air sourced from Siberia, the North Pole and Greenland will all converge on the region.
Temperatures are forecast to be 20 to 40 degrees below normal, the coldest of the winter so far.
Most locations in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast are predicted to set records for cold temperatures Friday and Saturday, with highs in the single digits and teens.
On Sunday morning, subzero cold is forecast over almost all of New England, with single digits in the Mid-Atlantic. New York City’s temperature may drop below zero for only the second time since 2000.
Winds, gusting to 30 mph, will make these areas feel 10 to 20 degrees colder.
Finally, after one of the most intense cold spells of such duration on record in parts of New England — including Boston — temperatures are forecast to gradually thaw by early next week.
Washington braves the cold weather
Storm hits the South
The storm took shape off the coast of Florida on Wednesday, unloading hazardous snow and ice in locations not accustomed to such weather.
On Wednesday morning, as many as six inches of snow and 0.5 inches of ice caked portions of north Florida, southeast Georgia and coastal South Carolina. In Tallahassee, it was snowing for the first time in 28 years.
Meanwhile, in Savannah, ice changed over to snow, offering a rare coating on the region’s palmetto trees. More than an inch accumulated, one of the snowiest days in the city’s history.
The Weather Service issued a rare alert for “heavy freezing rain” along the entire South Carolina coast Wednesday morning before the precipitation turned over to snow during the afternoon. In Charleston, the Weather Service reported the snow was “pouring”. Ultimately, it piled up to 5 inches, making Wednesday the city’s third snowiest day on record.