Why are So Many Powerful Nor’Easters Striking New England?

A major nor’easter is pummeling states from New York through Maine today with heavy snow, near hurricane force winds, and high surf. The storm is expected to dump 1-2 feet of snow over this region even as it pounds coastlines that have already been raked by two other major storms during the past two weeks.

It would be relatively unusual to see one storm of such intensity striking this region during any given March. But as the third in a two-week-long parade of extreme events, the presently intense storm pattern is starting to look more than a little outlandish.

So what the heck is going on? In a couple handfuls of words — influences related to human-caused climate change are spiking East Coast storm intensity while setting in place a general pattern that causes these storms to repeatedly fire.

(Over the past 11 days, three major nor’easters have struck the U.S. East Coast. Why have these storms been both so strong and such a persistent feature? Image source: RAMMB/CIRA. H/T to Chris Dolce.)

The Most Recent of Three Powerful Nor’Easters

Presently, the most recent strong storm has an intensity of 970 mb and features winds gusting to hurricane force just off-shore with gusts of up to 69 mph along the coast. Pressures are expected to drop into the upper 960s — making it about as powerful as the system that produced major flooding in parts of New England on March 2nd.

For reference, storm intensity measured by pressure in the range of 970 mb is about as strong as a category 2 hurricane. This is a rough comparison as hurricanes tend to be more intensely concentrated even as nor’easters tend to have broader if more diffuse impacts. But it’s a marker for the high level of atmospheric energy the system is now pumping out and how potentially damaging it could ultimately become.

The storm is thus strong enough to produce record and historic impacts. This is notable enough by itself. But the fact that we have had three systems of similar strength in just 11 days over what is practically the same region is concerning.

(Global warming fuels increased convection as lands waters pump out more heat and moisture. At times, this can result in some unexpected instances of atmospheric pyrotechnics.)

Specifically, on March 7 a 989 mb system raked the same region with gale force winds and instances of intense thundersnow (see above tweet by NOAA). And on March 2nd, a sprawling storm that dipped to around 975 mb generated massive waves and significant coastal flooding.

Atmospheric Train Wreck

Looking for causes, we need to go all the way back to February. At that time, a big polar warming event was taking place. In the upper levels of the atmosphere over the pole, the stratosphere was warming up. But at the same time, surface temperatures at the pole were rising to above freezing. In some locations near Northern Greenland, readings were pushing as high as 63 F above average.

High amplitude Jet Stream waves were eating away at the typically faster polar circulation patterns even as they were helping to inject much warmer than normal air into the Arctic and pull its resident cold air out. Eventually, all this heat running into the various layers of the Arctic atmosphere drove the polar vortex to collapse. This, in turn, resulted in cold Arctic air being ejected south and west into Europe. This massive jet stream dip, in eddy-like fashion produced a large, countervailing high pressure ridge over Greenland.

(A deep trough that has consistently lingered over the U.S. East Coast and helped to spawn storm after powerful storm, was initially generated by a very intense polar warming event linked to human-caused climate change. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

The rippling upper level jumble of winds backed all the way to the U.S. East Coast — forming a deep and persistent trough. The trough funneled numerous disturbances slowly through the region. And it was both the trough’s persistence and depth that enabled strong storms to form repeatedly even as they set off such long-lasting and intense impacts (see Dr Jennifer Francis’s related work on how polar amplification impacts the Jet Stream here).

Much Warmer than Normal Ocean Waters

Though polar amplification — which is another term for how global warming spurs the poles to heat up faster than the rest of the world — helped to generate the upper level features in the atmosphere that would consistently generate storms running across the U.S. East Coast, widespread warmer than normal ocean waters helped to give these storms more fuel.

In the Gulf of Mexico, sea surface temperatures have consistently ranged between 0.5 and 3 C above normal since February. These warm ocean waters contributed to severe floods over the Ohio River Valley at that time by pumping record levels of atmospheric moisture into the storms running south.

(Much warmer than normal sea surface temperatures dominate throughout the Gulf of Mexico and just off the U.S. East Coast. These warmer than normal waters — warmed by climate change — are providing fuel for the powerful nor’easters of recent weeks. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

As the Jet Stream dip became more oriented toward the East Coast during March, storms that would ultimately blow up over the Atlantic at first got a big plug of moisture from the extra evaporation flowing off that warmer than normal Gulf. But it was over the Atlantic Ocean that the storms would really start to fire. There, ocean temperatures were ranging between 0.5 and as high as 9 C above normal over parts of the Gulf Stream.

Such very warm sea surfaces provide a lot of fuel in the form of moisture and related convection. And, in particular, we saw some rather amazing instances of convective lift during the recent March 2nd and 7th storms as they tapped that incredible Atlantic Ocean heat and moisture.

Conditions in Context

So to sum up, an extreme polar warming event driven in large part by human-caused climate change set up conditions that generated a persistent trough over the U.S. East Coast. This trough was both deep and long-lasting. As low pressure systems moved into the trough zone, they were able to tap abnormal levels of heat and moisture rising off of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean near the coast in order to bloom to abnormally powerful intensity. Both of these factors — Arctic warming and warmer than normal sea surface temperatures — would not have been as acute or intense without the extra push to the climate system that human forced warming provides. As a result, we are seeing a very strong climate change related signal in the present severe storm pattern.


Leave a comment


  1. kassy

     /  March 13, 2018

    And, eventually, all the heat that was running into the at various layers of the atmosphere Arctic drove the polar vortex to collapse.

    I think Arctic is misplaced here (or that SSWE really did a number 🙂 ).

  2. oldmoses

     /  March 13, 2018

    Where I’m at in Maine: 24 hr. drop: 1018.1mb to 998.5mb – not quite explosive cyclogenesis, but close enough for this #3 March storm

  3. Keith Antonysen

     /  March 13, 2018

    Off topic, but …
    Quit a sobering article and film featuring the work by Dr Burger. His work suggests that coal ignited by molten magna was involved in the 5th extinction. The film referenced by the article displays a step by step process Dr Burger used to reach his determinations.

  4. Robert E Prue

     /  March 13, 2018

    I wish some of the rain and snow would divert to my location, just north of the”brown spot” on the drought monitor. Dry and wet periods are normal here. Seems like the cycle is becoming more extreme over the past few years. Like, we’re in a long lasting drought with periods of torrential rains. I miss the March blizzards from the past

  5. Greg

     /  March 13, 2018

    Nicely laid out. I can’t see why we would not see this pattern in the years ahead repeated as Greenland will remain an ice block to set up these events with a continuing warmer arctic and ocean to fuel them. I do wonder what happens as the arctic loses much more if its ice, however. The whole dynamic now still depends on a largely stable polar vortex pattern.

    • My opinion, and it’s still pretty speculative at this point, is that once Greenland melt really gets underway, that the cold pole at the surface will go through periods where it has shifted south over Greenland and the fresh water zone that results from its melting. Lately, during these collapse events, the cold pole/poles/remnants of the polar vortex have been drifting toward Siberia, the Canadian Archipelago and Greenland.

  6. Greg

     /  March 14, 2018

    Just look how the moisture is drawn from Central America.

  7. Syd Bridges

     /  March 14, 2018

    I see from the cat6 blog that there could be another nor’easter next week. One wonders how many more this setup could produce. It reminds me of the Cyclone Canon that kept hitting England with heavy rain a couple of winters back.

    • Good question.

      We’ve got a lot of energy in the form of heat coming off the Atlantic and in the form a that big trough that keeps digging in. Vortices seem to be popping up off the East Coast at the drop of a hat.

  8. rhymeswithgoalie

     /  March 14, 2018

    This is reminiscent of the “conveyor belt” of major storms that hit the UK in early 2014 due to a different stalled configuration of the jet stream.

  9. Our commiserations about the death of Stephan Hawking who said his main concern during his interview was the future of our species. A particular worry was President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement to reduce CO2 levels. He went on to say “We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible. Trump’s action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of two hundred and fifty degrees, and raining sulphuric acid,” he told BBC News.

    • One of Hawking’s most admirable qualities was his courageous ability to speak truth to power. Trump’s legacy, as with other politicians of our age who support fossil fuels and attack renewables, will be locking in much more harm. That said, we’re not yet close to the kind of wet stratosphere runaway that would make Earth look more like Venus. But there are lots of terrible steps and thresholds along that path. And we don’t want to cross any more than we already have.

    VW Just Gave Tesla a $25 Billion Battery Shock

    Volkswagen AG secured 20 billion euros ($25 billion) in battery supplies to underpin an aggressive push into electric cars in the coming years, ramping up pressure on Tesla Inc. as it struggles with production issues for the mainstream Model 3.

    The world’s largest carmaker will equip 16 factories to produce electric vehicles by the end of 2022, compared with three currently, Volkswagen said Tuesday in Berlin. The German manufacturer’s plans to build as many as 3 million of the cars a year by 2025 is backstopped by deals with suppliers including Samsung SDI Co., LG Chem Ltd. and Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd. for batteries in Europe and China.

    With the powerpack deliveries secured for its two biggest markets, a deal for North America will follow shortly, Volkswagen said. In total, the Wolfsburg-based automaker has said it plans to purchase about 50 billion euros in batteries as part of its electric-car push, which includes three new models in 2018 with dozens more following.

    Elon has been extremely successful in prodding the Automakers into action
    Kudo’s to him

    • So this is significant. And it appears that Volkswagen is presently investing 50% of its capital into building an EV line while the remaining 50% is still allotted to conventional vehicles.

      That said:

      1. Tesla has a 3-5 year jump on Volkswagen in terms of EV tech.
      2. Tesla is a pioneer in battery energy density increase and cost reductions.
      3. Tesla is presently out-selling Volkswagen on the EV front.
      4. Tesla already owns a large and expanding charging infrastructure.
      5. Tesla is not burdened by fossil fuel based vehicle manufacturing that will increasingly lose market share to EVs.
      6. Tesla’s all-renewable business model offers the opportunity for various synergies that Volkswagen presently doesn’t have access to and that, in the future, it will access on a more limited basis.
      7. Volkswagen is still getting burned by Dieselgate and has legacy PR challenges as a result. This may well be one reason why Volkswagen is pushing so hard to move into EVs. However, as noted above, the split in focus between ICE and EV will increasingly be a burden that presents conflicts for the company unless it continues to shift resources to EVs in an effort to fully transition over time.

      Overall, though, Volkswagen’s move is very good news for the EV transition overall in that ICEs are definitely losing their hold on auto manufacturing.

      Presently, Volkswagen has only one all-electrical vehicle on the market. That’s the e-Golf. It’s a decent EV with a 125 mile range and a price that’s a bit higher than the Nissan Leaf. Present e-Golf sales in the U.S. are running about 170 to 200 per month. Decent, but not something that’s presently anywhere near comparable to Tesla.

      Volkswagen plans 3 new electrical vehicles for 2018. There is, however, no clear understanding what form those vehicles will take or what their capabilities will be. Will they be all-electric, hybrid, plug-in-hybrid or a combination? Volkswagen also says it will begin offering one new electrical vehicle model per month during 2019. Again, it’s uncertain yet if these models will match the capabilities of the Leaf, the Bolt, the Volt, the I-Pace or other near peer Tesla competitors much less those of the Model S, X, and 3.

      In order to achieve its aims for 5 million EVs per year by 2025, Volkswagen will need to be able to make a much bigger splash in the EV market in terms of both quality and quantity over the next few years. But presently, there’s nothing yet on the books as anything more than a concept that appears to be capable of competing even on a near-peer status with Tesla’s already well-established and advanced line-up.

      This year, Tesla is likely to sell between 150,000 and 250,000 electrical vehicles. By 2019, that number is likely to increase to between 220,000 and 400,000 +. At the very least, unless Volkswagen surprises us with some seriously capable models in the meantime, it appears that Volkswagen will continue to lag Tesla for at least the next 1-2 years. In other words, these plans and promises are encouraging. But we need actual models produced in order to honestly assess if Volkswagen is moving fast enough to catch Tesla, much less surpass it.

      • kassy

         /  March 14, 2018

        There are strong incentives for the traditional brands to invest more in EVs (like selling cars in China in the future).

        Hopefully more German car makers will invest deeply and then inspire their politicians as they always do (the reaction to the diesel-fraud was lacklustre).

        The language in the last coalition accord hints at maybe not making the countries committed Paris climate goal. I think the technology changes will help a lot because when their car makers shift their politicians will help and from there they can only get more synergy by upgrading the grid.

    Warm Arctic episodes linked with increased frequency of extreme winter weather in the United States
    Judah Cohen, Karl Pfeiffer & Jennifer A. Francis
    Received: 28 July 2017
    Accepted: 11 January 2018
    Published online: 13 March 2018

    • wharf rat

       /  March 14, 2018

      I think Francis will end up with a Nobel for her work.

      • She should certainly be recognized for her contributions. The attacks that were earlier leveled against her were both rabid and unhelpful to the overall climate discussion.

        She identified features of a changing climate that need to be taken into account. But we should be clear that these changes are transitional in nature so long as we keep burning fossil fuels. That the alterations are part of the process of climate change and are less a fixed feature than the forefront of a wave of change that will continue so long as we keep burning fossil fuels and dumping so much carbon into the atmosphere.

    Tree Farms Will Not Save Us from Global Warming
    Plantations would have to be massive in scale, and their value is still unproven

    • They’re somewhat helpful. Reforestation is more helpful. But the thing that’s really going to give us the opportunity to provide major cuts in carbon emissions is a clean energy revolution.

    • bostonblorp

       /  March 14, 2018

      I would love to see analysis on the potential carbon sink from seeding former tundra with trees that will make their way there eventually. The climate is changing much faster than forests can migrate. Helping them make the move might sequester a good chunk of CO2.

  13. 12volt dan

     /  March 14, 2018

    Exxon seems to think they can do anything they want…

    “In January, Exxon Mobil filed a legal petition seeking to depose more than a dozen city and county government officials in California, claiming that the municipal officials are defrauding investors by not fully disclosing the risks posed by climate change.

    You read that right. Exxon is legally challenging cities and counties for not talking up the risks of climate change enough to the investors who purchase municipal bonds for those localities. Has Exxon had a change of heart and now become concerned about transparency and the impacts of climate change?

    Let’s take a closer look.”

    unbelievable. I’ll just leave it at that

    • In Australia, Exxon is under increasing scrutiny due to the fack that it pays practically zero in taxes even as it fires workers and guts wages. This on top of all the climate harms its committed, all the climate change denial it has spread, and all the other polluting and environmental damage it has produced. Bad actor is a rather mild term for it. There’s a reason why so many lawsuits are cropping up against that company.

    • hatrack

       /  March 15, 2018

      It’s just another SLAPP, though one based on creative lawyering. They figure that at some point the municipalities will get tired and go home. I doubt it – the cities are home, with their backs between the wall and the sea.

  14. 12volt dan

     /  March 14, 2018

    At the same time Exxon’s report to the shareholders paints a rosy picture of burning all proven reserves and staying under 2 degrees

    ” Its 2018 report states that “we estimate that by 2040, over 90 percent of our year-end 2016 proved reserves will have been produced. Considering that the 2°C Scenarios Average implies significant use of oil and natural gas through the middle of the century, we believe these reserves face little risk.”

    you can’t make this stuff up

    • Well, I think that Exxon definitely made stuff up in that report. Utter nonsense. Exxon’s going to have to leave a substantial portion of its reserves in the ground if we’re going to avoid the 2 C mark in the next few decades much less this Century.

      • kassy

         /  March 14, 2018

        you can’t make this stuff up <= or maybe they have a really powerful incentive to actually do that. You can sell BS as long as people buy it.

      • 12volt dan

         /  March 14, 2018

        Agreed they must be lying. What gets me is the total disregard for the truth. On one hand they allege that cities are understating the effects of AGW and then do the exact opposite on the shareholders report. In print no less. Are they that arrogant? do they think they’re that far above the law? it’s a little mind boggling and like Trumps tweets I hope it brings about that corporations demise.

  15. => The Fast-Melting Arctic Is Already Messing with Ocean Circulation, Scientists Say

    You got an email address for me to keep you in the loop, robertscribbler?


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