What happened to the Blizzard of 2015?

What happened to the Blizzard of 2015? Well, it happened. Despite breathless complaining about how the forecasters got it all wrong, they didn't. As the storm was predicted, there should have been close to about two feet of snow in the New York City metropolitan area, but as it turns out, there was between 8 and 12 inches. That means that New York City experienced a typical winter month's worth of snow in one day. Also, most snow that falls on The City falls a few inches at a time and melts more or less instantly, as few cities can match New York in its heat island effect. So, 8-12 inches of snow all at once is a meaningful, crippling snow storm. Two feet would have been much worse, but it is not like The City did not experience a memorable weather event.

More importantly, the forecast was for a huge blizzard with up to three feet of snow across a blob shaped region of the Northeast approximately 475 miles along its longest dimension (see graphic above). The blob ended up being off, on the southwest end, by about 40 or 50 miles. So the spatial extent of the storm was misestimated, days in advance, by about 10%. An object the size of a country was off by the distance a healthy adult can walk in a long day. That was, ladies and gentleman, an excellent, accurate prediction.

nyt-march-29-1976But, since the storm's outcome was different than predicted in the world's most inward looking city (you've seen the self-effacing maps produced now and then by the New Yorker magazine), it is assumed by many that the forecast was bad, that forecasting was bad, that weather models are bad, and so on.

As meteorologist Paul Douglass told me yesterday when I asked him if he was going to be kneeling on any carpets today over the difference between prediction and reality, "No kneeling, Greg. Just because we tap supercomputers and Doppler radar doesn’t mean we can predict snowfall down to the inch. Models are good and getting better, but they’re not perfect and never will be. People expect perfection in an imperfect world. Boston picked up 20-30” snow, Long Island saw 15-23”, so did much of Connecticut. There was an 8 foot storm surge on Cape Cod where winds gusted to 78 mph."

Paul also told me something he shared later that day on the Ed Show. "Over 30 years I’ve worked with a series of anchormen in the Twin Cities and Chicago. When they invariably gave me a hard time for busting a forecast I reminded them that a monkey in a sport coat could report on what happened yesterday. Look at the trends and predict tomorrow’s news headlines!" He indicated that when sportscasters started to routinely predict tomorrow's scores rather than report today's scores, they would be on a level playing field with the meteorologists.

Here is that Ed Show piece:

The Blizzard of 2015 was in some ways comparable to the Blizzard of 1978, which was one of the first storms of the modern era of increased storminess. The snowfall totals may have been greater for 2015, but coastal winds were greater for 1978. But, in 1978 over 100 people died, and most of them died of exposure because they were caught in the snow. So, in terms of cost of human lives, the two storms are very comparable despite the differences in winds.


Why did over 100 people die in New England's 1978 storm, but either zero or one person died (depending on attribution of a single sledding accident related death to the storm) in 2015?

Weather forecasting. It got better because the science and technology behind it got better. And, frankly, that is partly a result of storms like the '78 storm and various hurricanes, which prompted an interest in advancing this technology, which includes on one hand satellites producing piles of data and on the other hand advanced computer and software producing powerful models.

You should buy your local meteorologist a beer.


The image comparing 1978 and 2015 is a chimera of images that come from NOAA and the Boston Globe.


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I watched the radar as the bulk of the storm passed below me. Then it grew in size and intensity over the ocean and threatened me from the east. As it sat there moving slowly northward I watched the radar as bands of heavy snow moved west towards my area but as they approached, they petered out. We ended up with about 5 inches of snow. A little drifting. I got to try out my new electric snow blower for the first time this winter. It's light as a feather and doesn't beat me up as I use it.

A little change in the conditions would have made a big difference in the amount of snow we had. The snow flakes remained small throughout the entire storm. Had they gotten big we would have been hammered. If we were about 40 miles closer to the storm we would have had about a foot more of snow. For this storm it was location, location, location.

By Richard Chapman (not verified) on 28 Jan 2015 #permalink

Well said Greg. I got almost exactly midway between the NWS min-max range. I consider myself lucky because just a few miles north, south and east of me they got the max.

Another couple factors that made this storm less bad than 78 were the lightness of the snow and the fact there was near zero existing snow pack. In 78 we already had a foot or two of snow on the ground before it hit and the snow was much wetter.

The death toll reduction was absolutely due to the more accurate forecast allowing the Governor to declare a state of emergency the day before it hit. Back in 78 Gov. Dukakis had to wait until the morning of the storm after most people were already on the road heading to work.

By Paul Hutchinson (not verified) on 28 Jan 2015 #permalink

Paul good point about the snow. In many areas, 78 had a periods of wet snow thrown in there.

Ill take a light red wine ;)
You talked to a good guy there with Paul.

By danny satterfield (not verified) on 28 Jan 2015 #permalink

"Great piles of snow rose up like gigantic arctic graves..." -- New York Times, March 11,1888


This latest storm seemed a fleafart compared to March 13, 1993. I was in Auburn, AL then. We huddled under a stairwell seeking concealment from a tornado one minute and the next we had pounding thunder sleet/snow. With gusts to 75 mph, the thing even had an 'eyewall' which passed right over us. As we felt (it is every Alabamian's right to drive by feel) our way back home in an old T-bird in which primary braking consisted of slipping the C-6 transmission in reverse, A Texan said to her fiancee' "Hunny, lets move somewhere they don't have these sleet storms!".

Outside on the second story apartment landing, I was momentarily blinded by lightning as I braced and gazed into the heavy, wet, driving, smacking and slapping snow -- It hit the in-ground transformer box not fifty feet from me; The percussion being not so much a normal sharp 'snapcrack' so much as a deep, muffled 'boom', even though so close.

The morning landscape was surreal, epic -- hundreds (thousands?) of square miles of Georgia Pacific laid flat I found it impossible to best the 40 mph north wind and traverse the 1/8 mile up a hill to the store I could see was open and knew they had my brand of snuff waiting -- Instead, I gave in and slid south to a little gas station which charged me $7 for a pack of bologna.

I had heard a song I liked on the campus radio and purchased the singer's (Leonard Cohen, The Future) album a month before this storm --

...............Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
.......................................Won't be nothing
.......................Nothing you can measure anymore
......................The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
.................................has crossed the threshold
.....................................and it has overturned
......................................the order of the soul

This 'prophecy' seems to have been fulfilled in that many snow totals were not 'officially' measurable in the Appalacians because the rainguage heaters couldn't keep up with it but instead froze over.

Tim, a front with tornadoes in the middle of the continent and a Nor'Easter are not comparable in any way at all. Very different. That sounds pretty bad.

This was sort of a melding of the two types, Greg laden... a tropical-looking low with record barometric pressures formed in the gulf and raced up the east coast.

Any comparison with this storm and the 1993 storm, danny satterfield #4?

In my travels, I came across a group of construction labourers poking fun at local TV weatherman -- "...There is a heavier than usual dew this morning; I'm gonna have to go ahead and issue a warning on that. Sorry to interupt reruns of Andy Griffith, and all..."

I loved that guy; He was my favorite. Though I did hear that he once mistook a sidelobe hailspike signature as a 70,000 ft storm when he was demonstrating the neat ability to actually control the instrument by taking a vertical profile of a single summer cell. :grin:

Nice post.

I can see why people in NYC considered this a fizzle, but here in central Massachusetts it was a pretty big storm. Fortunately, it was predicted well in advance as you pointed out. Also fortunately, the snow here was relatively light and powdery so there weren't many branches down and not very many power outages.

People will always complain about the weather forecasts, but I think that they have gotten much better, especially in the 1-3 days in advance timeframe.

By Paul Spring (not verified) on 29 Jan 2015 #permalink

What Happened to the Blizzard of 2015?

Easy it was another scare tactic of the weather channel to pander their advertisement contracts.

By S.P. Hudson (not verified) on 29 Jan 2015 #permalink

" That means that New York City experienced a typical winter month’s worth of snow in one day."
What has been the overall effect on snow fall per month and per year in the states affected by this sort of blizzard during this century?

Has there been more snow per year in the U S or has there been snow concentrated into fewer snow fall events such as these blizzards.

Since much of the expected snow fall of this storm seems to have been shifted out past the coastline could this have also happened at times during the 20th century ?
The blizzards of previous years possibly having dumped much of their snow burden out to sea rather than on land.
Not much can be done to measure snow fall at sea other than whatever is reported by ships caught in storms at sea, and perhaps reports from coastal islands.

GY: Both. There is a general trend of increasing precipitation (but you would not be impressed by the amounts, just a small increase) and a tendency for precip to be concentrated in time/space (thus mini "droughts" also popping up).

These days precip amount can be estimated from satellite so I'm sure there is a way to estimate snowfall at sea.

SP: The answer to the question "what happened to the blizzard of 2015" is actually in the post you commented on, in the first sentence.

"This storm was relatively mild; it covered a smaller area than other major snow storms and didn't have high winds. In fact, it wasn't technically a blizzard at all, since the scientific definition of a blizzard requires sustained wind speeds above 35 mph (56.3 kph) and visibility under 500 feet (152.4 meters). But this storm is notable for the one place it did hit: New York City.

The weather station at New York's Central Park Zoo recorded a total of 26.9 inches (68.3 cm) of snow from the storm. That total equals the greatest snowfall in New York City recorded history and breaks a record that had been set in 1947 [source: NOAA]."

How does this compare with the recent blizzard/snow storm that fizzled so far as New Yorkers are concerned?

A pretty good snow storm but not actually a blizzard and only notable because it dumped most of it snow in the one place where it would get the greatest publicity.


"That’s about the 2016 snow storm."

The storm of 2006 was what I'm asking about, and its perception as a record blizzard only due to where the greatest mass of snow fell.
What happened to the rest of that snow?
Did some get blown out to sea, or in scattered falls over a wide area?

Have other massive snow storms of earlier times simply not been recorded because they dumped their burden in the sea rather than on land?

Since the winter arctic sea ice coverage as of Jan 29 is nearly a million square kilometers greater than the maximum coverage for last year and hundreds of thousands of square kilometers greater than the average since 1981, then why would were consider the sea surface temps in the arctic to be the sole deciding factor in large blizzards in the NE US.

Scratch the last post. I was looking at the wrong monthly average.

According to 'Michael 2', since several people have felt a need to write about Superbowl XLIX, it means that the game wasn't much of a story on its own merits.

Further, he tells us that if we want to know about last Sunday's game, then sportswriters should be writing about another exciting game that occurred decades ago.

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 03 Feb 2015 #permalink

Blizzard of 2015 deeper than the Blizzard of 1978. I don't think so... The Blizzard of 1978 was a general 30-40" of snow for the Boston and Providence RI areas ( That includes Suburbs) Not to mention the snow in '78 was not measured every 6 hours and wiped off a board, it was solid snow fall from the sky.

[I am impressed with your access to secret data no one else has. -gtl]

Regarding #23, not sure why the discrepancy from the snowfall graphic above, but in Snowstorms Along The Northeastern Coast Of The United States 1955 to 1985, Kocin and Uccellini show a much larger area of 20+ inches in the 1978 storm, most of MA and CT, with 30+ inches for northern half RI and adjacent southeast MA. Maximum 38.0" at Woonsocket RI.

By J. Pollack (not verified) on 16 May 2015 #permalink

Mapping snow is hard.

A careful read of that paper will probably tell you why NOAA has a slightly different map. If not, contact the authors.

It seems pretty obvious that large coastal winter storms became more common with 78 bring a kind of boundary marker. That's when homes started getting wiped out on a regular basis in new England and New York. Think every body by surprise, and has been happening since.

First of al this is not secret data and anyone can get it. Look up Weather COOP Data, looked up Massachusetts and you will see places like Norton, Ma with 39" and ever the person measuring indicating that they did not use the 6 hour measurement wiping off the snowboard like so many others do these days.