Look Out! Heavy Snow and Strong Winds Are Heading to the Northeast

Bigfoot takes on a Boston nor'easter. Image Credit: Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images

A major nor’easter will bring heavy snow and gusty winds to the northeastern megalopolis on Thursday, February 9, dropping at least a half-foot of snow across the most heavily populated region of the United States. The dose of intense winter weather will snarl travel and likely bring daily life to a halt through the beginning of the weekend. The heaviest accumulations are possible between New York City and Boston, where some locations could see a foot or more of snow by sunrise on Friday.

The catalyst behind the classic winter storm is a strong disturbance digging its way east across the country. The same system that will trigger the nor’easter brought snow and subzero temperatures to the Upper Midwest earlier this week; morning lows dropped lower than -20°F in North Dakota and Minnesota on Wednesday morning. The upper-level trough will cause a low-pressure system to develop at the surface in Virginia on Wednesday night. This low will quickly strengthen as it moves over the Atlantic Ocean and tracks parallel to the East Coast. It’s a scene that repeats itself every winter—one that snow lovers and winter haters alike are all too familiar with.

The Weather Prediction Center’s most likely snowfall forecast for the three-day period beginning at 7:00 AM EST on Thursday, February 9, 2017. Image Credit: Dennis Mersereau

The latest forecast from NOAA’s Weather Prediction Center calls for about half a foot of snow between eastern Pennsylvania through southern New England. The greatest chance for heavy snow stretches from northeastern Pennsylvania through eastern Massachusetts, where the most productive snow bands are expected to develop. Precipitation will begin on Thursday morning in the Mid-Atlantic and work its way north through the afternoon hours. The last of the snow should taper off on Friday morning in New England. It’s worth noting that there will be a relatively sharp gradient between having to crack out the shovel and a dusting on the grass—a boundary that’s likely to set up right along the Mason-Dixon Line. Precipitation will fall mostly as snow north of this line, while the storm will start as rain and could end as some snow to its south. It’s likely too warm for the Washington D.C. area to see more than a light coating of snow at the most, but its far northern suburbs could see a few inches from this system.

A weather model simulation of the nor’easter on Thursday morning, showing the heaviest snow bands on the northwest side of the storm. Image Credit: Pivotal Weather

Like so many nor’easters before it, this storm will play tug of war between unusually warm temperatures to the south and bitterly cold Arctic air to the north. The sweet spot for the heaviest snow will be where the cold air intersects with the area that has the highest moisture and the strongest lift, a region called the deformation zone. The deformation zone is almost always on the northwestern side of nor’easters, resulting in a swath of heavy snow that parallels the coast. Sometimes the heaviest snow bands set up far enough inland to miss the big cities, and sometimes they form right over the cities and result in those blockbuster blizzards that people remember for years.

The fact that the heaviest snow falls in such a narrow area makes forecasting nor’easters a tricky business. Warm air is a plague in East Coast winter storms; it can turn a potential snowstorm into an icy disaster or just a cold, miserable rain. A small eastward or westward shift—just one or two dozen miles—can render a snowfall forecast completely useless. This happened just last month during the significant snowstorm in the Carolinas and Virginia. The storm tracked a little farther inland than expected, allowing warm air to chew away at the snow and result in mostly ice around cities like Raleigh, North Carolina, while giving heavier snow to Greensboro, two hours to the west of Raleigh.

Temperatures have been a roller coaster leading up to this snowstorm, and that trend will continue soon after it leaves. It’s been so warm on the East Coast lately that some cities are easily setting daily high temperature records, including Washington D.C’s major airports on Tuesday and every airport around New York City on Wednesday. Temperatures behind the nor’easter will remain frigid during the day on Thursday and Friday as Arctic air drains in with the westerly winds behind the storm, aided by the icebox effect of having snow on the ground. Low temperatures on Thursday night will fall into the teens and single digits in areas with snow on the ground, and high temperatures on Friday will struggle to climb out of the 20s. Highs will quickly climb back above normal on Sunday and last through early next week, helping to melt any snow that falls from this hard-hitting but ultimately fleeting burst of winter.

7 Wintery Facts About Ice, Freezing Rain, and Sleet

Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0
Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Whether you’re trying to fly across the country or you just want to buy groceries, a winter storm can have a significant impact on your life. But how can you tell if the ice, sleet, or freezing rain will prompt a winter weather advisory or a snow day from work? Here are a few facts about winter storm weather to help you prepare.

1. Freezing rain and sleet are a winter storm's silent hazards.

Ice in the form of freezing rain and sleet is just as big of a threat as snow, and often result in a winter weather advisory being issued for the affected region. Ice is arguably more dangerous than the fluffy white stuff. Snow is generally manageable: You can shovel it and plow it, and while others are doing the work, you can enjoy a snow day with a cup of hot cocoa. You can’t do that with ice.

For the most part, frozen water becomes solidly affixed to any exposed and untreated surface. There comes a point when ice is entirely unmanageable. Even a giant vehicle with four-wheel drive is useless when it can’t grip the surface it’s sliding on. Ice—mostly from freezing rain—is not only dangerous because of the associated travel hazards, but also because of the damage it can cause.

2. A winter storm with Freezing rain is dangerous.

Freezing rain is rain that freezes when it comes in contact with an exposed surface like a tree or a sidewalk. A small amount of freezing rain can leave a thin glaze of ice on just about any surface, creating a situation where surfaces that look wet are really icy instead. A steadier freezing rain will allow a crust of solid ice to form on trees and power lines, weighing them down to the point of breaking. Extreme ice accretions—over an inch—can cause significant damage and disrupt life for weeks at a time.

3. Freezing rain is actually melted snowflakes.

Freezing rain forms when there’s an inversion layer present during a winter storm. An inversion layer occurs when a layer of warm air gets sandwiched between two colder air masses. Snowflakes fall through the warm layer and completely melt before reentering the subfreezing air near the surface. This newly formed raindrop can’t freeze back into ice because it doesn’t have a nucleus around which to freeze, so the raindrop becomes supercooled, meaning it remains in liquid state even as its temperature drops below freezing. Once the supercooled raindrop reaches the ground, the water instantly freezes into ice.

4. All that ice from freezing rain is extremely heavy.

If you’ve ever had to carry a case of bottled water up a flight of stairs, you know that even a little bit of water is extremely heavy. Imagine even more weight on a much more fragile surface, and that’s what you get during an ice storm. Damage to trees can begin with just a quarter-inch of ice, with more damage to bigger and sturdier trees as the crust of ice grows thicker. The Weather Channel points out that just a half-inch of ice accretion on a standard power line can add 500 pounds of extra weight to the line and the poles supporting it. Extreme ice storms can cause as much damage as an intense tornado, as even a couple of inches of ice adds enough weight to crumple the tall steel transmission towers that carry high-voltage power lines—and those take a while to repair.

5. Sleet is freezing rain's annoying cousin. 

A close relative to freezing rain is sleet. Sleet, also known as ice pellets, forms through the same process as freezing rain. Snowflakes destined to become sleet also fall through a warm layer of air, but one that isn’t deep enough to melt the snowflake completely. Once the partially melted snowflake enters subfreezing air, there are still a couple of ice crystals left in the raindrop that allow the raindrop to freeze into a little ball of ice before reaching the ground. The result is an ice pellet about the size of half a grain of rice that makes a distinctive tinking noise as it bounces off cars, vegetation, and roofs.

6. Sleet is like snow that freezes solid. 

Sleet looks like snow and it accumulates like snow. It’s easy to mistake sleet for snow if you’re not a hardcore weather geek, but with enough accumulation, even the casual observer will know something is different pretty quickly. Sleet has a nasty habit of freezing into solid ice within a few hours of falling, especially if the Sun comes out or if temperatures briefly rise above freezing once the precipitation stops. Once this hardening occurs, it can be next to impossible to remove it from sidewalks, driveways, and roads until there’s a major thaw. In the southeastern United States, sleet is particularly common (and problematic), since the region is prone to warm air intruding on its winter storms and many municipalities don’t have enough snow equipment to clear the roads before that sleet freezes solid.

7. When a winter storm warning is issued, join the grocery lines.

Everyone makes fun of the throngs of panicked shoppers before a snowstorm, but stocking up on groceries before a winter storm is a pretty good idea for even the biggest cynic. If freezing rain knocks out power for an extended period of time, stores and restaurants will be forced to close until power is restored and they get fresh shipments of food. If that happens, you’re pretty much on your own for food and drink until conditions improve. Before a storm arrives, make sure you get plenty of food and beverages that you don’t have to cook or keep fresh.

Lake Michigan Has Frozen Over, and It's an Incredible Sight

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

A polar vortex has brought deadly temperatures to the Midwest this week, and the weather is having a dramatic effect on one of the region's most famous features. As the Detroit Free Press reports, parts of Lake Michigan have frozen over, and the ice coverage continues to grow.

The Lake Michigan ice extent has increased rapidly throughout January, starting around 1 percent on the first of the month and expanding to close to 40 percent by the end of the month. Yesterday was the coldest January 30 in Chicago history, with temperatures at O'Hare Airport dropping to -23°F. Even though it's frozen, steam can be seen rising off Lake Michigan—something that happens when the air above the lake is significantly colder than the surface. You can watch a stream of this happening from a live cam below.

Lake Michigan's ice coverage is impressive, as these pictures show, but it's still far from breaking a record. Though Lake Michigan has never frozen over completely, it came close during the winter of 1993 to 1994 when ice reached 95 percent coverage.

Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana aren't the only places that have been hit hard by the cold this winter. At the United States/Canada border, Niagara Falls froze to a stop in some spots, a phenomenon that also produced some stunning photographs.


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[h/t Detroit Free Press]

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