CLOSE
Original image

A Massive Snowstorm Is Heading to the Northeast

Original image
The National Weather Service’s snowfall forecast through 8:00 PM EDT on Wednesday, March 15, 2017. Image Credit: WeatherBELL Models

 
Winter plans to make up for lost time tonight as a major late-season snowstorm promises to deliver one to two feet of snow to just about the entire northeastern United States. The nor’easter will snarl travel for several days during and after the storm, bringing life to a grinding halt until crews can sweep away the frozen reprieve from spring. If current forecasts hold true, some of the heaviest snow could fall around the New York City area, potentially making this one of the biggest winter storms in the city’s history.

A sprawling nor’easter will develop on Monday night and continue through the day on Tuesday, leaving behind formidable amounts of snow from the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina to the Canadian Maritimes. Precipitation will begin around the Washington D.C. area on Monday night, spreading north through the nighttime hours. The storm will encounter enough cold air that the majority of the precipitation will fall as snow, but ice and rain will mix close to the coast. This presents a major issue for forecasters, as a small change in the track of the storm could have huge implications for tens of millions of people.

Current forecasts from the National Weather Service call for widespread accumulations of a foot or more covering just about everyone from Maryland to Maine, with totals approaching 2 feet in northeastern Pennsylvania and the southern Hudson River Valley. On Monday afternoon, the forecast called for an even 20 inches of snow in New York City proper, with similar amounts to the city’s north and west. Snowfall amounts to New York City’s north and south—including Boston, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—could wind up around a foot, give or take a few inches. The storm will begin with ice and rain farther down Interstate 95 toward Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., which are both on track to see about 4 to 8 inches of snow if everything unfolds as currently forecast.

The amount of land expecting heavy snow from this nor’easter is unusual—areas as far west as Buffalo, New York, are expecting a foot or more of snow—largely because a low-pressure system over the Great Lakes will move east tonight and merge with this nor’easter on Tuesday, providing it the extra moisture and lift it needs to grow its reach much farther inland than you would expect from a typical East Coast snowstorm.

A simulated radar image from the HRRR weather model for 4:00 AM EDT Tuesday, March 14, 2017, showing how close the line between rain (green), icy mix (pink), and snow (blue) will track to the big cities along Interstate 95. Image Credit: Tropical Tidbits

 
As with every nor’easter, the huge caveat with snowfall totals is the exact track the storm takes as it moves along the coast. Winter storms that move up the East Coast are a tricky balancing act between warm and cold air at the surface and mid-levels of the atmosphere. Subtle changes in temperature can mean the difference between a memorable snowstorm and a sloppy, icy mess that’s more dangerous than photogenic.

If the nor’easter tracks closer to the coast than current forecasts expect, communities that lie along Interstate 95 could see dramatically lower snowfall totals than anticipated. On the other hand, if the storm tracks 10 or 20 miles farther out to sea than expected, the heaviest snow will follow this eastward movement and deliver an even greater blow to the major cities that make up the megalopolis. If you live in the affected areas, the snowfall totals in your current forecast are what’s most likely based on present information available to meteorologists. You could see less or more depending on the exact track of the storm, which is very hard to know until the storm is already underway.

Regardless of the exact amounts, this will be a far-reaching and highly disruptive snowstorm. Flight and rail cancellations are a given. Highways will likely be slowed to a crawl during and after the snow, while local roads could remain impassable to most vehicles for at least a day or two. Many school districts will likely close for the remainder of the week, even in areas that are usually resilient during winter weather. Moreover, the psychological and societal impact of this storm will be greater than usual because of how abnormally warm it’s been this winter.

On top of the hardship caused by one to two feet of snow, the snow will be accompanied by strong winds that could damage trees and power lines. Blizzard warnings are in effect for coastal counties between Atlantic City, New Jersey, and the border between Connecticut and Rhode Island, including the entire New York City metropolitan area and western half of Long Island. Sustained winds of 30 to 40 mph are likely across areas expecting blizzard conditions, with gusts of 50 to 60 mph possible.

So what is a blizzard, exactly? A blizzard occurs when sustained winds of 35 mph or stronger create blowing snow that reduces visibility to one-quarter of a mile or less for three consecutive hours. It’s a pretty technical definition that’s hard to meet, but the weather conditions required for a “true blizzard” equate to a disorienting whiteout. Venturing even a few dozen feet from safety during a whiteout can put you at great risk for becoming disoriented and possibly lost, a risk that’s even greater when the heaviest snow and wind occurs at night. As tempting as it is to play in the snow, stay inside during blizzard conditions if you can help it.

This could be one of the most significant winter storms to ever hit the northeastern United States during the month of March, and in some spots it could rank in the top-10 all-time winter storms. If the current NWS forecast of 20 inches of snow comes to pass at the weather observing station in New York City’s Central Park, for instance, it would be the fourth-largest one-day snowfall in the station’s 127-year history, and it could place as number 9 or 10 in the list of top-10 snowstorms. The storm probably won’t break any all-time records in other major cities, but it could easily become one of the largest March snowstorms on record all along the Interstate 95 corridor.

arrow
Weather Watch
3 Ways We Can (Kind of) Control the Weather, and 5 Ways We Can't

Humans have the incredible ability to control the world around us. We can move mountains and land robots on other planets. We can keep each other alive longer than ever before and even bring entire species back from the brink of extinction. But despite all of our leaps forward, we're still unable to control the weather, a tremendous force that affects every human being on this planet. Still, humans have come up with some pretty crafty ways of influencing the weather—in small doses.

1. WE CAN MAKE IT RAIN … SOMEWHAT.

The desire to control weather has been a mainstay of imagination since, well, the beginning of imagination. The fortunes of entire societies can hinge on flood or drought. We have strong motivation to want to create a rainstorm in one spot or moderate snowfall in another. But the greatest success we've ever had is a technique that can (maybe) encourage a tiny bit of rain to form over a tiny area.

Cloud seeding is a process through which fine particles like silver iodide are released into a cloud in order to encourage the formation of rain or snow. These particulates serve as a nucleus around which water vapor can condense and turn into a raindrop or a snowflake. This is most commonly done with small airplanes, but it can also be accomplished by launching tiny rockets or flares from the ground.

In theory, the practice of cloud seeding could have innumerable uses around the world, including crop maintenance, providing drinking water, and even possibly weakening severe thunderstorms or hurricanes. There's only one problem: It doesn't work all that well.

The effectiveness of cloud seeding is a hot topic of debate among scientists, but most studies have either found negligible impacts on precipitation, or the researchers were unable to determine the exact impact of cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is a great concept if you want to help one cloud produce a little extra rain or snow just to say you can do it, but it's not the way to go if you're desperate and want to trigger a deluge. This process requires the pre-existing presence of clouds, so even if the technology improves in the future, it's not a viable solution for drought-stricken areas that haven't seen meaningful clouds in weeks.

2. WE CAN DEFINITELY ATTRACT LIGHTNING USING ROCKETS.

Lightning safety is one of the things you learn from a very young age. "When thunder roars, go indoors," as the motto goes. We learn to stay away from open areas and water during thunderstorms. But what if you wanted to attract lightning? It's surprisingly easy to do if you have the right equipment and really, really want to encounter some of nature's fury.

Scientists who want to study lightning can bring it right to their doorstep by using specially designed rockets attached to conductive wires that lead to the ground below. When a thunderstorm blows over the observation station, operators can launch these rockets up into the clouds to trigger a lightning strike that follows the wire right down to the ground where the rocket was launched. Voila, instant lightning. Just add rocket fuel.

3. WE CAN CREATE CLOUDS AND HEAT—EVEN WHEN WE DON'T MEAN TO.

Most of the ways in which we control—or, more accurately, influence—the weather is through indirect human actions—often unintentional. "Whoops, the nuclear power plant just caused a snowstorm" isn't as crazy as it sounds. Steam stacks can and do produce clouds and updrafts with enough intensity to create rain or snow immediately downwind. The very presence of cities can generate microclimates with warmer temperatures and heavier rain. And there's also climate change, the process in which our accumulated actions over a long period of time are influencing the very climate itself.

BUT WE CAN'T DO THE FIVE FOLLOWING THINGS.

Despite our limited ability to influence a few aspects of weather over small areas, there are some rather colorful conspiracy theories about whether or not governments and organizations are telling the whole truth about how much we can accomplish with today's technology. There are folks who insist that the trails of condensed water vapor, or "contrails," left behind jet aircraft are really chemicals being sprayed for sinister purposes. (They're not.) There are theories that a high-frequency, high-power array of antennas deep in the Alaskan wilderness can control every weather disaster in the world. (It doesn't.) There are even folks who insist that Doppler weather radar carries enough energy to "zap" storms into existence on demand. (Dr. Evil wishes.)

There are also some bizarre and unworkable theories that are offered in good faith. A meteorologist a few years ago opined on whether building an excessively tall wall across middle America could disrupt weather patterns that could lead to tornado activity. And every year the National Hurricane Center is peppered with questions about whether or not detonating nuclear bombs in a hurricane would disrupt the storm's structure. Unfortunately, while pseudoscience offers up great theories to test in the movies, when it comes to weather, we're still not in control.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Weather Watch
NASA Figures Out Why When It Rains, It (Sometimes) Drizzles
Original image
iStock

What’s the difference between drizzle and rain? It has to do with updrafts, according to new research by NASA scientists into the previously unexplained phenomenon of why drizzle occurs where it does.

The answer, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, could help improve how weather and climate models treat rainfall, making predictions more accurate.

Previously, climate researchers thought that drizzle could be explained by the presence of aerosols in the atmosphere. The microscopic particles are present in greater quantities over land than over the ocean, and by that logic, there should be more drizzle over land than over the ocean. But that's not the case, as Hanii Takahashi and her colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory found. Instead, whether or not rain becomes full droplets or stays as a fine drizzle depends on updrafts—a warm current of air that rises from the ground.

Stronger updrafts keep drizzle droplets (which are four times smaller than a raindrop) floating inside a cloud longer, allowing them to grow into full-sized rain drops that fall to the ground in the splatters we all know and love. In weaker updrafts, though, the precipitation falls before the drops form, as that light drizzle. That explains why it drizzles more over the ocean than over land—because updrafts are weaker over the ocean. A low-lying cloud over the ocean is more likely to produce drizzle than a low-lying cloud over land, which will probably produce rain.

This could have an impact on climate modeling as well as short-term weather forecasts. Current models make it difficult to model future surface temperatures of the Earth while still maintaining accurate projections about the amount of precipitation. Right now, most models that project realistic surface temperatures predict an unrealistic amount of drizzle in the future, according to a NASA statement. This finding could bring those predictions back down to a more realistic level.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios