Sunday, February 10, 2013

30,000 feet above Boston, Massachusetts

A pilot is peering out of the cockpit window of a 777 on its way to London. He looks down through a cloudless sky at the city of Boston spreading out beneath him and the cities of Everett, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop beyond it. He sees a whitewashed patchwork of streets and buildings cut up by a deep blue harbor. It’s a city buried beneath more than two feet of snow. He takes a photograph.

image: Reddit

Three days earlier, Thursday February 7, 2013, 6:00 PM

Waukegan, Illinois

Heavy, wet snow is falling. The evening commute has ground to a slow crawl along IL Route 137, running north out of Chicago. This is a fairly routine snow storm for northern Illinois in February. It will leave behind about half a foot of snow in the Chicago suburb of Waukegan. Just a few miles south, the storm is mostly cold rain and wind, inconveniencing Chicagoans on their way home from work.

Friday February 8, 2013, 7:00 AM

Mirlo Beach, North Carolina

A rainstorm is creeping along the North Carolina shoreline. The barometric pressure is dropping, and as it drops humid sea air rushes toward the coast, forming thick clouds and dumping rain as it sweeps inland. Ocean winds gust to 40 miles per hour across the outer banks. Here at Mirlo Beach, sheets of rain wash over vulnerable seaside houses, some of them raised on stilts to protect against the flooding that has become increasingly frequent here in the past few years. The ocean waters, driven toward the shore by the strong wind, are washing across NC Route 12. The small beach town is still rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy, which tore apart the asphalt along Route 12, leaving the road, and the town’s only connection to the mainland, impassable. Within a few hours the seawater will recede, and the damage left behind will be minor. The storm will roll out to sea, continuing along its northeastern trajectory.

Friday February 8, 2013, 7:00 PM

Somewhere off the coast of New Jersey

As the storm pulls away from the North Carolina and Virginia coastline, it moves over the waters of the Atlantic, which are warmed by Gulf stream currents. Here the storm intensifies as warm, humid air from the ocean surface is drawn up toward the storm’s swirling center. As this warm air rises, strong winds force it toward the outer edges of the storm. This process of drawing air up and out of the storm’s center causes the pressure within the storm to drop, which in turn causes more air to rush toward the storm, producing higher and higher wind speeds. As the storm suctions humid air from the surface of the ocean, the amount of moisture it carries, and the potential quantity of snow or rain it could release when it makes landfall, increases. Meanwhile, the snow storm that originated in northern Illinois has swept across the Great Lakes and overland toward the Atlantic coast, pushed eastward by the transcontinental jet stream. The timing and paths of the two storms are perfect as they collide and merge, the northern storm front wrapping around the emerging nor’easter. A single, massive storm now churns northward.

The two storms, on a collision course, as seen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES-13 satellite. image: NOAA/NASA

Friday February 8, 2013, 10:00 PM

East Boston, Boston, Massachusetts

I’m walking down the middle of the street, shuffling through several inches of slush. The governor of Massachusetts has mandated a state-wide driving ban in anticipation of the approaching storm, so the street is empty. The wind is relentless. Needle-like bits of precipitation sting my face with each gust. I can’t decide whether it’s sleeting, snowing, raining, or some combination of all three. The wind is making it increasingly difficult to walk. Tomorrow I will hear that near-hurricane-force wind gusts were recorded at the airport less than half-a-mile away. I begin to wonder if going outside to watch the arrival of the storm first-hand was a good idea, but I continue on. I round a corner and walk down a side street toward the harbor. At the end of the street, I squint through the driving snow, looking for the water’s edge. I know the land drops into the harbor less than twenty feet from where I’m standing, but I can’t see it. I involuntarily recall stories told to me as a child, of people walking out into a blizzard, becoming disoriented in a whiteout, unable to find their way back, freezing to death just feet from their own front door. I turn around and scramble back uphill the way I came. With the wind now at my back, I pause to take a few pictures.

 Saturday February 9, 2013

Winthrop Beach, Winthrop, Massachusetts

High Tide. Waves driven by a relentless wall of wind are breaking over the top of the 15-foot seawall at Winthrop Beach. As seawater spills over the wall, it gathers into torrents, rushing down streets, contained by snowbanks.

Saturday, February 9, 2013 10:30 AM

East Boston, Boston, Massachusetts

I’m standing knee-deep in snow, looking at my car. It more closely resembles a vaguely car-shaped pile of snow than a car – it’s completely enveloped in a snow drift. I take my phone out of my pocket and check the weather forecast for the coming week: temperatures above freezing every day. The snowfall has tapered off. Only a few snowflakes lazily float to the ground around me. I carefully consider my need for a car. I have enough food for the week, and I’ll take the subway to work. I leave the car where it is and hope that the sun will do the work of extracting it from the snow bank for me. (Update: This plan, despite being inspired by laziness, was largely a success. By this past weekend, the car was surrounded by just a few inches of snow, which I cleared away after ten minutes of shoveling)

A street in my neighborhood the morning after the storm. Each of those piles of snow lining the street contains a car.

Saturday, February 9, 2013 1:00 PM

East Boston, Boston, Massachusetts

The storm has passed. Everyone is outside. Some are shoveling snow, digging narrow passageways along sidewalks, uncovering cars. Others are having fun. A mother pulls her infant daughter down the street on a toboggan. A man cross-country skis through the neighborhood. Kids are sledding down an outdoor staircase covered in two feet of powdery snow.

East Boston residents dig out after the storm

Sailboats in the shipyard are coated in snow and ice, while the Boston Financial District skyline begins to emerge across the harbor as snowfall tapers off.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

22,236 miles above the US eastern seaboard, geostationary orbit

As the nor’easter spins away from the New England coast, out into the north Atlantic, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES-13 satellite takes a photograph revealing that the storm has taken on the appearance of a hurricane – a massive cyclone with a distinct eye at its center.

The storm (upper right) takes on a cyclone structure. image: NASA/NOAA

The clear skies left in the wake of the storm provide the NOAA satellite with a clean view of the storm’s aftermath – the entire Northeast buried in snow.

image: NASA/NOAA

Sunday February 10, 2013

Somewhere over the North Atlantic

As he leaves Boston behind and sets out across the north Atlantic toward England, the pilot is unintentionally following the path taken by the storm just hours earlier. Within a few hours he will catch up to the storm somewhere below Greenland. He will guide his plane south, skirting the edge of the storm system, bypassing it. He will arrive in England three days ahead of the storm.

Wednesday February 13, 2013 5:00 PM

West Midlands, England, UK

As the storm chugs across the North Atlantic, it gradually loses intensity. The cyclone structure quickly dissolves as the frigid ocean waters and dry, arctic air sap the storm’s energy and moisture. By the time the storm finally makes landfall again, here in Great Britain, it hardly resembles the ferocious nor’easter that smothered the northeastern US three days earlier. It manages to drop just over an inch of snow across the Midlands before completely dissipating. The storm ends its 4000 mile journey in much the same way it began: inconveniencing evening commuters with long traffic jams and an unpleasant walk home.

  2 Responses to “Anatomy of a Nor’easter”

  1. Thanks for including the West Midlands in this post! I guess we really can’t complain about our Nemo experience. :)

  2. Great description of the storm! The Connecticut experience included power outages for many people combined with ferocious winds and severe cold necessitating intense efforts to evacuate people to shelters with heat. Streets are still (2/20/13) sporting piles of snow that occupy a full travel lane in many cases. For nearly a week after the storm some highway exit ramps ended at a 5 or 6 foot high wall of snow. Yesterday’s rain storm stimulated the public works department to send a payloader and dump truck all over town to find the street storm drains and uncover them. Another storm that reached blizzard proportions is approaching from the west and is predicted to dump another 6 to 12 inches of snow on the northeast this weekend. Last winter there was virtually no snow other than the bizarre October storm that shut down the state for nearly 2 weeks. Weather has become a more salient force to be reckoned with in our daily lives.

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