All Weather News

40th Anniversary of the The Great New England Blizzard

6 Feb 2018, 12:02 pm

[The image above shows cars on Rt 128 S Needham, Mass on February 8, 1978. Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.]

On this date 40 years ago in 1978, A massive nor’easter buried the cities of the Northeast. Storm totals included 18 inches in New York City, 16 inches at Philadelphia, and 14 inches at Baltimore. The Boston MA area received 25 to 30 inches in “The Great New England Blizzard,” and the mayor outlawed travel in the city for an entire week.

The storm packed hurricane force winds, record breaking snowfall and white out conditions. Heavy snow fell from northeastern Maryland into Maine. Record snowfall smothered Long Island, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. A small portion of Rhode Island reported over 50 inches of snow and many schools and businesses across the area were closed for over a week.

It has been said that those of us that are of a certain age who were living in southern New England can vividly remember where we were when the snow started to fall during the mid morning hours of Monday, February 6, 1978. It was the beginning of the epic storm that still lives in the hearts of many southern New England residents as one of, if not the greatest, winter storm to hit the region.

The low pressure area that would become the Blizzard of 78 formed from a diving Alberta clipper system out of the great lakes associated with a strong upper level disturbance. Another weak low developed off the South Carolina coast. These systems joined forces off the Virginia capes on the night of February 5 to intensify rapidly, as an area of heavy snow marched its way up the east coast early in the morning.

Forecasters were well aware of the storm’s potential, having seen the predictions on their computer forecast models, of which there were only two at the time. They issued a Winter Storm Watch for the entire southern New England area early Sunday morning, nearly 30 hours prior to the first flakes falling. Heavy Snow Warnings were issued by early Monday morning, with blizzard conditions mentioned. For 1978, this was a remarkably good forecast.

There was a problem though. Several other storms were forecast during the winter of 1977-78, but did not materialize. Two weeks prior to the blizzard, another storm developed that was supposed to be rain. However, that storm dumped 1 to 2 feet of snow across the region. When forecasters stated that the snow was to begin during the pre-dawn hours of February 6th and had not arrived, many people felt that it was another failed forecast. Residents headed to work and school none the wiser.

The snow moved into the region by mid morning and accumulated quickly. Snowfall rates were up to 2 inches an hour by midday. Hence, the calamity began. People were released early from work and school, only to become stuck on snow clogged roadways. Literally thousands of cars were stranded on major thoroughfares across southern New England, especially in the greater Boston and Providence areas. This quickly became a life threatening situation, as strong northeast winds combined with the heavy snow to create whiteout conditions.

By the early morning of Tuesday, February 7, the low pressure center became stalled south of Marthas Vineyard. Satellite photographs, rather grainy as compared to today’s standards, showed a clear center similar to an eye of a hurricane had formed. Some locations close to the storm center along the south coast of Massachusetts actually reported either a mix with or change over to rain as relatively warm air worked in off the ocean. Less than a foot of snow fell on outer Cape Cod, with little if any snow on Nantucket.

By the time the storm ended over 32 hours later, the damage had been done. Reports of 2 to 3 feet of snow were common, with snow drifts much higher. Some people stuck in their cars on the highways became victims of the storm. The huge amounts of snow were made worse by the disastrous flooding that occurred along the east coast of Massachusetts. With the storm stalled off the coast, this allowed the very strong northeast winds to build very high seas which crashed ashore. When combined with astronomical high tides, the storm produced some of the worst coastal flooding ever reported for the region. The flooding continued through two days of tide cycles, a total of four successive high tides. Many homes were damaged or destroyed.

Hurricane force wind gusts were also reported. Gusts of 93 mph were reported in Chatham and 79 mph in Boston. Life in southern new England stood still for a week or more. The National Guard was called in to help clear the massive amounts of snow and abandoned cars from the highways. School was cancelled until mid February. Portions of Rhode Island and coastal Massachusetts were declared Federal Disaster Areas by then President Jimmy Carter.

You can read more here from the National Weather Service in Boston/Taunton.

Edited for WeatherNation by Meteorologist Mace Michaels