TCS Daily

Anniversary Thoughts

By Sallie Baliunas - February 7, 2003 12:00 AM

New England newspapers carry a standing headline nearly every winter: "Blizzard buries (or 'blasts' for the monosyllabic-minded headline writer) Boston, Thousands stranded as Logan Airport closes."

New Englanders have vast experience with storms piling 10 to 15 inches or more of snow in a day. Modern forecasts usually give adequate notice; after that, it's up to human nature to prepare for the inevitable. New Englanders plow, sand, salt, telecommute and in other ways adjust to snowfall. One comical New England pre-storm quirk is the rushed run to the grocery store, where bread, eggs and milk quickly sell out, despite the fact that milk and eggs might spoil if a storm were to cause a power outage. Surely chocolate, peanut butter and beer would be better bets.

Last week, This is London sported the headline "Transport meltdown in snow." Mechanized travel in the city practically halted: the M11 highway was so littered with car accidents that motorists were stranded for as many as 15 hours because sanding trucks could not prepare the roads for safe travel. Public transport failed from overcrowded and closed stations. London's economic loss was estimated at approximately £16 million.

Compared to New England's blizzard shutdowns, London's occurred in a mere two inches of snow. Although the forecasts for London's snow were fairly good, preparation was poor.

Sometimes forecasting and preparation require persistent follow-through. London's recent snow experience renewed memories of a week-long Boston snow shutdown one quarter of a century ago this week, despite a good forecast.

On January 26, 1978 about one foot of snow fell on Boston. Following not two weeks later, a massive low-pressure system that portended a major addition to the snow base hugged the seaboard from Philadelphia to Portland. As the storm unfolded on February 6, winds snarled to blizzard conditions, meaning that the snowstorm had winds of 35 mph or more and temperatures 20 F or lower. Snow fell for two days and added two to four feet of frozen white vistas that left the parking meters in Boston standing in snow up to their necks. The wind whipped drifts 10 to 15 feet high.

Motorists were stranded in approximately 3,500 vehicles on the highway encircling Boston, Rte. 128 ("America's Technology Highway"). All but emergency driving was banned, with a penalty of $500 per violation. Harvard University made the unusual move of canceling classes because professors could not reach campus.

Adding to snow woes were storm surges and floods intensified by the perigean spring tide, an astronomical term that denotes the high tide when the moon is closest to earth (at perigee, hence perigean tide), combined with the high tides of the new moon (spring tide). Coupled to a severe storm, the perigean spring tide of the Blizzard of '78 devastated the coast. The 1,121-ton passenger steamer Peter Stuyvesant, owned by a nearby landmark restaurant, sank after it was wrested from its permanent moorings. The damage costs for the Blizzard of '78 totaled about $1 billion.

Other cities in the Northeast were also blasted by the blizzard. The headline for The Evening Bulletin declared, "Worst snow storm in R.I. history halts transit, strands thousands." Walking on the pavement of I-95 was fashionable and necessary; Providence did not recover until February 13. New York City suffered through blizzard conditions and approximately 18 inches of snow.

The Blizzard of 1978 did not best the worst in New England's modern history - the Blizzard of 1888. A Nor'easter on March 11-14 left a snowfall of approximately four feet in some areas, while winds shaped drifts 40 feet high. Closed roads and destroyed urban infrastructure meant little heat, food and travel. Over 400 people were killed in the storm.

Forecasting tools were too primitive to have predicted the Blizzard of 1888. Modern meteorology successfully predicted the Blizzard of 1978 as a severe storm; some preparation was possible, but the intensity of the storm strained average resources for typical winter storms. Last week Londoners learned that despite forecasts, being unprepared for just two inches of snow is disastrous. What will we do when the glaciers return?

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