I remember early last week our attention was dominated by a festering Hurricane Rina in the western Caribbean. Will Rina maintain its intensity before striking the resorts of the northeast Yucatan?
One computer model suggested Rina would sustain at least tropical storm-force winds and make a run toward south Florida by late week (after its run in with Cancun and Cozumel). Another model projected the deterioration of Rina while hinting at an East Coast storm by the weekend. Hmmm ... Ok, now. My interest has been piqued. Let the computer weather model watching begin.
By midweek, Rina was struggling; dealing with an highly unfavorable atmospheric environment. It was on its way to dissipation. My interest in Rina quickly waned while my intrigue grew by the potential of a late week storm; possibly impacting the major cities and interior sections of the Mid-Atlantic and New England. But what would be the magnitude of the storm? What would the track of the storm be? A heavy rain threat? A powerful windstorm with battering waves? Snow?
What the... Is this model showing snow!? And not just the novelty, conversational snow. It’s printing out inches and inches of snow across the Northeast. Hard to believe in that scenario considering another computer model was keeping the storm well off the coast. The difficulty in forecasting in all its glory; we couldn’t come to any conclusions just yet. The model differences were just too great.
Soon though, model agreement was happening. Both major computer weather models were honing in on a solution that would drop interior Northeast snow. Forecast confidence was growing; especially in regards to storm track. But the magnitude of the storm was still a question. In this case, magnitude = cold air. How much cold air would be in place across the Northeast region. It was of course, October.
Then came Friday morning. Studio level at the The Weather Channel was buzzing. Computer model runs from Thursday night through Friday morning showed that yes indeed, just enough cold air would be in place. As a meteorologist, excitement builds. You see what the models are projecting but you just can’t quite believe it.
The models were projecting something unprecedented. Something that just simply hasn’t been jotted down in the history books.
- A storm that would bomb out — meteorologically speaking. Dropping 24 millibars of pressure (or more) in 24 hours or less; thriving on the temperature contrast between the cold air mass over land and the substantially warmer ocean waters of the Atlantic.
- It would tap tropical moisture (Rina) which would enhance precipitation amounts; in this case — snow.
- Sufficiently cold air from the north and west would seep into the region; well-below average cold air.
- The kicker... All of this, in October!
Did the computer models know what month this was? Did they realize their forecast output was suggesting something of historic proportions? This would be a heck of snowstorm in the middle of winter, let alone October. It was jaw-dropping.
All of this before so many locations throughout the Northeast even experienced their first frost let alone their first freeze. All of this while trees were still in full or close-to-full foliage. Heck, some tree leaves had not even completely turned their autumn red, yellow and/or orange.
Senior meteorologist Tom Moore came out of the Global Forecast Center (GFC) on Friday afternoon and exclaimed if this storm verifies (and lives up to its fullest potential), it will be the greatest October Northeast snowstorm on record. I think I laughed to myself a bit and smiled. Why? Looking back, I was probably still in disbelief. No way this storm will verify. Something will happen to keep this storm warm; reducing expected snow amounts significantly. Right?
Computer models weren’t backing down and current weather observations were providing us early warning signs. The cold air will be in place. The lingering doubt I had gradually became "ok, this is really going to happen". The storm was going to reach its full potential. "Holy cow," I thought. Although I probably didn’t say "cow".
Sound the Alarm
Meteorologists at TWC including myself immediately and repeatedly stressed the unprecedented nature of the storm and the impending power outage disaster.
High-water content snow laying down on trees in full foliage. Each leaf on a tree limb capturing the snowflake after snowflake; the weight grows heavier. Stress on tree branches builds and builds until they give out. Limbs or entire trunks falling on power lines, ripping them down.
It didn’t take much thought to know that the amount of snow we were forecasting combined with a highly forested region of the country combined with a majority of trees still hanging onto their summertime leaves meant a disastrous blow to the power infrastructure of the Northeast.
A power loss map was quickly drawn up by senior meteorologist Stu Ostro and handed to our meteorology graphics department. The gravity of the situation needed to get out. It was going to be very bad.
The snow forecasts were made, live crews departed for their field assignments, the #snowtober Twitter hashtag was created, extended hours of shift work was scheduled — coverage of the greatest October Northeast snowstorm had begun.