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The meteorology behind the blizzard of February 6-7th 1978

Posted by David Epstein  February 6, 2014 04:25 PM

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On this bright and sunny afternoon with light winds and cold air, it is worth noting that February 6th and 7th mark the 36th anniversary of one of the most famous blizzards to ever hit southern New England. For over 32 hours snow fell and would pile up to just over 27 inches in Boston with more to the southwest of the city. As the storm stalled to the south of Cape Cod it would produce hurricane force winds, a large storm surge and intense waves that would leaves thousands of homes destroyed along the coast. Thousands of people would be either be stranded or simply abandon their cars on highways. Boston and much of eastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut were at a standstill for days following the storm. Cape Cod, they had mostly rain.

I was living in Portland, Maine at the time and student at Lyman Moore Junior High. I was already very much into the weather and remember watching Barry Burbank who was at WCSH-NBC at the time forecast the storm. I also spent time feverishly working on our TV antenna so I could, through a very fuzzy signal, hear Don Kent forecast that monster of a storm on WBZ.

Computer models were still relatively new and a series of busted forecasts left many people skeptical that a big storm was actually coming. On the morning of the 6th, snow was suppose to start prior to the morning commute. However, when folks awoke and saw the snow hadn't begun many of them decided it was another busted forecast and went to work. These same people would then try to get home that afternoon while the blizzard was fully underway. The rest of the story is well known with feet of snow, coastal damage, Dukakis in his sweater and school out for days or even weeks. However, what is equally interesting for me is the meteorology of the storm.

Cold air was in place prior to the storm and on the 4th of February temperatures would during the day were cold with the air quite dry. During the next two days the atmosphere would undergo a remarkable transformation as both pieces of the jet stream phased together allowing warm and moist air to be pulled into the storm with cold air still present. This moisture, when hitting the cold air in place, produced billions of snowflakes that would pile up to record amounts. As the jet streams merged and the warm air moved north, winds would increase at the surface and blow over hurricane force along the coast. The strength and intensity of the cold air to the north would basically block the storm and allow it to sit and spin for all those hours. The maps below help tell the story of the storm. These maps are courtesy of Paul J Kocin and Louis W Uccellin's book on northeast snowstorms. The book, Northeast Snowstorms, is one of my favorite reference books for storms in print and is a bible to many meteorologists. It is published by the American Meteorological Society.
The maps
Notice the satellite photo and how the storm looks like a hurricane. We don't have many photos of the storm since this is well before the internet technology of today. However, this is one of the most well developed east coast storms ever recorded. The eye, near Nantucket, is the most prominent feature and an indication of the storm's fury. At the upper levels, the jet streams had come together early on February 6th, 1978. This phasing, as it is called, is what some models are predicting to happen of our coast Friday. (not as intense or long lasting). The map shows how the jet stream's perfect configuration occurred at just the right time for such a blizzard to form. At about 850 millibars or 5000 feet into the atmosphere warm air was clashing with arctic air and aided in the storms longevity. Truly all of the ingredients where there back 35 years ago for this noteworthy event. These types of storms are not often seen and while we have had big snowstorms since, the Blizzard of 1978 will for many remain the granddaddy of them all.
Blizzard of 1978 snow totals.png
Satellite Blizzard of 1978.png
Blizzard of 1978 surface map.png
temperature maps.png
Jet Stream Map.png
I'll be the forecast on Twitter at @growingwisdom about the latest details on the cold and any potential storms ahead.


You can tweet me an update @growingwisdom.


This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

David Epstein has been a professional meteorologist and horticulturalist for three decades. David spent 16 years at WCVB in Boston and currently freelances for WGME in Portland, ME. In 2006, More »
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