, Salem, MA

February 19, 2013

Column: You call that a blizzard?

Robert T. Leavens
The Salem News

---- — As a trained scientist and lifelong (64 years) student of the weather in eastern Massachusetts, I feel that some clarity and perspective is required in response to Gov. Deval Patrick’s recent patronizing statements about dealing with the predicted increased present/future frequency of strong and damaging storms as a result of global warming; the implication being that this storm had been one of them.

It is true that Earth is presently warming. It is also true that Earth could be on the verge of another round of glaciation within the current ice age. Earth is presently much colder than average, given its past. These are facts. If the current state of the climate is generating more powerful or frequent storms in Massachusetts, where are they? Boston gets an average of 11 snow events/season. The first five or six events this season netted less than 10 inches of snow combined: far from blockbuster. There were essentially no snowstorms last season.

The measurement of total snowfall in a storm has changed from measuring it at the end of the storm to measuring it every hour and wiping the fallen snow away for the next hour’s accumulation. This system results in significantly higher totals being recorded.

The definition of blizzard has also changed. The old system required winds of 45 mph, a foot or more of snow and temperatures below 10 degrees. The last blizzard by that definition was on JFK’s Inauguration Day 52 years ago.

Comparing the recent “blizzard” to the Blizzard of ’78 is a joke. The winds in the 1978 storm were about 11/2 times as strong (120 mph gust on Plum Island), and the snowfall almost twice as much and more across much of the area. And then there was the 1969 storm, in which 76 inches of snow fell on Cape Ann and about 50 inches in Medford.

Hurricane Sandy was a large storm, it is true, but had nowhere near the wind velocities (even where it was worst) of Hurricane Carol or the Hurricane of 1938. Before the age of weather satellites, who knows how large some past hurricanes were in relation to Hurricane Sandy? Thankfully, we haven’t recently had a hurricane in eastern Massachusetts as severe as those a half-century ago. We certainly are due, but I represent that this has mostly to do with probability and little to do with global warming.

Our ability to cope seems somewhat diminished, remembering that we should have many advantages over the resources of the past. On a return voyage from Sumatra, in 1804, in the teeth of a storm very much like our recent “blockbuster,” and at night, Nathaniel Bowditch sailed into Salem Harbor braced nearly entirely by his wits. Skill or luck, he never went to sea again.


Robert T. Leavens is a Gloucester resident.