SALEM — Remember 35 years ago? On Feb. 6 and 7, we had the big storm, the granddaddy of them all.
Tides and winds were reminiscent of the great New England hurricane of 1938, and the snowfall on those two February days was record-breaking. There have been many accounts written concerning that storm and pictures galore. However, they cannot capture the violence of that disastrous nor’easter; you had to live through it to experience the powerful forces it produced.
On the 6th, the snow commenced and raised havoc with the evening commute, as the massive storm system kept pumping warm, moisture-ladened air into the highest reaches of the atmosphere, where it condensed and fell as snow.
There was an explosive intensification of the surface low. The barometric pressure fell rapidly and the northeast winds increased to gale force, and later to hurricane force. In addition to the low deepening, there was an area of strong high pressure to our north that made the winds even stronger.
Once the snow began, its intensity increased markedly. The hourly snowfall amounts were excessive, as much as 3 inches per hour in some locations. The intense, buffeting northeast winds continually swirled the snow into massive drifts. Thus, the snow plows were not able to cope with the serious rapid accumulations.
In Ipswich, winds raced in from the ocean with gusts as high as 85 miles per hour. Many North Shore coastal locations experienced higher gusts. Just to our south, at Cape Cod, the winds buffeted the region with gusts in excess of 90 miles per hour.
In Salem we measured 26 inches of snow that fell in a time period of 26 hours. Regular traffic came to a complete halt. Transportation was by snowmobile or cross-country skis. Only emergency vehicles were allowed on our streets and highways. Our landscape was completely transformed into a fantasy land of wind-driven snow.
The snow and the winds were bad enough, but there was another serious aspect of this record-breaking storm for those living along the immediate coastline — a series of exceptionally high tides and disastrous, wind-driven coastal surf. It just happened that there were extremely high “spring tides” on the 6th and 7th of February.
By Tuesday evening, the record-breaking storm passed over Nantucket and continued to move east-northeast. Finally, the storm abated and the huge task of snow removal and rescues began. The resulting flooding and devastation along the Massachusetts coastline was the most severe in the memories of long-time residents and weathermen. Fortunately, the post-storm weather was delightfully sunny with very little wind, allowing the inevitable clean-up period that followed.
Arthur A. Francis is a Salem meteorologist.
BLIZZARD OF ’78 SNOWFALL
Ipswich 44 inches
Middleton 29 inches
Salem 26 inches
Newburyport 25 inches
Rockport 33 inches
Lawrence 37 inches