The Star-Herald

March madness

At this writing, in the wee hours of the 2nd of March, a very dangerous March nor’easter is about to hammer a good hunk of New England, with major coastal flooding possible, especially in eastern Massachusetts. 

I got to thinking about March powerhouse storms, and two others immediately came to mind, and I have a personal connection to each.

March is a month which can deliver very high-impact winter storms. The fabled Blizzard of 1888, which immobilized New York City, was a March storm. And locally, Caribou’s heaviest 24-hour snowfall occurred in — the month of March. Back in 1984, the city received a staggering 28.6 inches on March 14.

Now, the first of the two March storms I’m “connected” with delivered a crushing blow to the very coastal town where my family later had a cottage, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. I have met a number of people in The County who have either been there, or who have heard of it. Well, whether you know it or not, if you want to see some stunning pictures of what a powerful nor’easter can do to the coast, you’ll want to check out this URL:

I spent many hours as a kid on that boardwalk. And those pilings you see in the shots are all that was left of it.

There were three key elements that led to the coastal destruction. One was an unusually long fetch. This is the word for the linear distance that wind travels over water. To imagine fetch, imagine being in a pool and wanting to generate a wave with your arm. If you only take your arm back a short distance, you won’t be able to drive much water in front of it. On the other hand, if you draw your arm way back, you can create quite a wave!. This fetch was directing a very strong NE wind right at the Delmarva peninsula from waaaay out in the Atlantic. The second element to blame for the destructive power of this storm was its duration. It battered the coast through five high tide cycles. And the third element, that was the wind. Coastal winds gusted to 70 mph. That wind and those waves just hammered away through those five high tides!

The storm also had an impressive snowy side to it, dumping 40 inches at Big Meadows, Virginia, about an hour west of Washington, D.C.

The second storm is one that I actually went through, and it happened almost exactly 25 years ago, in the middle of March, back in 1993.

An area of low pressure in the Gulf of Mexico underwent explosive intensification. It bombed out, which I wrote about in a recent column. That column dealt with the rise of the phrase “bomb cyclone”. Everyone thought that was some new thing but it wasn’t at all. It’s just that no one ever called it that because it’s technically incorrect. Bombing out is a process. So a low can be said to have bombed out. Here are the baseline numbers again that meet the definition, 24 millibars in 24 hours, (0.71” in 24 hours).

So, The March ’93 storm developed in the Gulf of Mexico, punished the Big Bend of Florida with a deadly storm surge, and bombed out, as it charged up the Eastern Seaboard.

It just so happened that the Northeast Storm Conference was held in Saratoga Springs, New York, at the very same time. So you had a hotel full of geeked-out meteorologists, with the storm of a lifetime bearing down on them. And it led to one of the more unusual scenes that I have ever witnessed. Meteorologists at a bar in a hotel, cheering for….snowfall reports. You couldn’t make that up!

Saratoga Springs got every bit of two feet of snow, which was blown into huge drifts. A couple of us went out that night to sample the storm, and it was very challenging to get around on foot. In some cases the snow was drifted up to the door handles of cars.

An interesting aspect of the storm is that 25 years ago is a very long time when you think about the rapid advances in weather model computing power. However, the weather models of the day forecast the storm well in advance, and it was seen at the time as a pretty good breakthrough.

Ted Shapiro holds the Broadcast Seal of Approval from both the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association. An Alexandria, Va. native, he has been chief meteorologist at WAGM-TV since 2006. Email him at tshapiro@wagmtv.c

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