Recapping the last two weeks of historic weather

Hurricane Sandy, as she churned up the eastern seaboard on October 28th, 2012.

Often times, especially in the field of meteorology, things can be exaggerated. This becomes especially true when you’re talking about the atmosphere and mid latitude storms — a fluid and dynamic process where some of the most beautiful (and sometimes destructive) systems on earth can form. Your friends, parents, or even grandparents will tell you of the old winters back in the 40’s and 50’s that they lived through which featured 90 inches of snowpack and 150 foot snow drifts. A colleague will detail an awesome thunderstorm which produced beachball sized hail. Or maybe you, yourself, experience a weather event so thrilling that in your words, you exaggerate it a bit to your friends. All of that said, every once and a while, a certain weather event — or a period of time, emerges that cannot possibly be exaggerated. The last two weeks, which we just lived through, is one of them.

As meteorologists, our job is to forecast the weather and inform the public of what the forecast is and how to prepare adequately. It’s a delicate process. Yet, on some days, the process becomes even more delicate than usual. This was the case in during our forecast operations on the afternoon of October 25th, 2012 — just a few days before Hurricane Sandy. Earlier in the week, we had warned of the impending threat in a blog post which read

What catches the long range forecasters eye around Day 5-7 is the forecast development of a tropical system in the Caribbean, which could drift north into the Southeast Atlantic by Day 7. Such a development doesn’t seem overly concerning at first — but the mid and upper air pattern rings some serious alarms for long range forecasters almost immediately. Although variance at this range is a major factor — forecast models don’t usually get a good grip on the pattern for several more cycles — the blocking adds an extra level of intrigue to the pattern development. Should the tropical system head north and not east (also a big question mark) it could be drawn into a phase with the large upper level trough and aforementioned cold front over the Eastern US.

Yet, even with advanced warning, forecasting a storm like Hurricane Sandy is a difficult process. On that afternoon, we were in touch with a significant emergency management corporation. And for the first time as an organization, we told them “this is not a joke. this is a life threatening situation.” This wasn’t a summertime thunderstorm. There were lives at stake — and our forecasts, conferences, and abilities to communicate to our readers could ultimately save lives.

We can hope that we did, but the storm turned out to be what we expected it to be and a bit more. Make no mistake about it, Hurricane Sandy was a once in a lifetime storm in this area. Meteorologically, it occurred due to a sequence of nearly unfathomable events. A tropical system ventured out of the Caribbean into the Southwest Atlantic Ocean, seemingly harmless. However, all around the storm system incredible meteorological processes were occurring. To the north and east of Sandy, an incredible block was developing over the North Atlantic and drifting into Newfoundland. This block would work in tandem with the Central Atlantic ridge to the east of Sandy to effectively “Block” her from moving east after a certain point. To her west and southwest, an energetic upper air trough was racing south and east and would eventually phase with the storm system, ripping her back west towards the coast.

It was, for much of the New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut area, the perfect storm.

A prolific storm surge and tremendous wave heights (a record 32.5 foot wave recorded at the entrance to New York Harbor) slammed into the coasts, with tremendous tidal surge and coastal flooding. Beaches, homes, neighborhoods were washed away. Subsequent fires developed from exploding gas and power lines. As the storm moved inland, incredible southeast winds developed as a strong low level “sting” jet positioned itself over the area.

Forecast soundings just 12 hours before the event, from the NAM model, showed a dramatic MAUL signature (moist absolutely unstable layer). These are freely convective — and can convect air  by themselves without any other trigger mechanism for momentum transfer. In other words, the winds roaring just a few hundred feet above the surface during the prior 10 hours of the storm, now had a way to reach the surface. And they did. 90 mile per hour gusts were recorded in various places throughout the area — with 70 mile per hour gusts becoming ridiculously widespread. Tree, home, power line damage was extensive to a level that many thought they would never see.

We weren’t done yet. While many were grieving, mourning loss, and recovering — the atmosphere was not resting. Just a week after Hurricane Sandy, a significant early season snowstorm slammed into the area on November 7th. Although

Radar during the snowstorm on November 7th, 2012 at 4pm. Heavy snow was falling through much of NJ, NY and CT.

our area escaped the strongest winds and high tides, the event was still prolific. More than a foot of snow fell in some places, knocking out power once again to those that had it recently restored — and even causing new additional power outages in separate areas. Winter-like deformation banding in response to strong atmospheric lift developed through much of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut from southwest to northwest. For 12 hours, snow fell at a moderate to heavy pace in many areas which had previously been ravaged by the storm.

Record breaking snowfall was reported in many areas with over a foot of snow reported in areas like Freehold, NJ. 3 to 6 inch totals were widespread throughout the area, while pockets of 6 to 9 inch totals were not uncommon either. If it were not for the hurricane a week earlier, such a storm system would be far and away the highlight of the season. Yet — it came as salt in the wound for an area that was still recovering.

This prolific and anomalous weather can be traced back all the way to 2010… beginning with the December 2010 Blizzard which crippled the area under nearly 30 inches of snow in some areas. We can do through a list thereafter, including: Historically snowy winter of ’10-11, historically hot summer of 2011, Hurricane Irene, unprecedented October 30th snowfall in 2011, historically snow-less winter of ’11-’12. And that brings us to the past two weeks. There were periods of significant weather in the past that may challenge these two weeks (1954-1955 hurricanes/tropical systems) (1978-1979 blizzards and tornadoes), but such a wild swing of equal but opposite extremes was nearly unheard of.

It will be hard for anyone in this area to forget the two week period from October 29th through November 14th. Yes, these events were meteorologically significant. Unheard of, unprecedented, and unbelievable (in the truest sense of the word, almost not believable). Yet these events, more importantly, changed the fabric of our area’s people and molded communities into a new shape which they will remain in for years to come. Millions of people were affected by these two storm systems, many of which lost a loved one, lost a significant piece of property, or saw their neighborhood changed. But somehow, the people of this area have found a way to respond — better yet, bounce back. With donation drives, volunteer work, communication and friendship — our area is recovering at an unbelievable rate and communities and people are becoming closer as a result of it. We have seen inspiring responses and reaction from people in various communities that we thought we would never see.

There is a certain camaraderie about the people in this area; when it comes down to the moment of need we will all be there for each other. As a forecast organization, we’ve bought into it. We’ll be there for you too.

We hope you and your family and friends all are doing well in the wake of these events. Sending our best wishes to all that have been affected.