This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Blizzard of '78, an exceptional nor'easter that brought Massachusetts and other parts of New England to a near standstill with record snowfall and coastal flooding.
On Feb. 5, 1978, the National Weather Service correctly predicted the approach of a big snowstorm at least a day in advance, which was good for the time. However, their estimate of the storm's onset for early morning on Monday, Feb. 6 was off by a few hours. Most people simply ignored the predictions out of a common skepticism toward weather forecasts at the time.
By early afternoon on Monday, blizzard conditions descended on Massachusetts, catching many people at work or school. The storm continued unabated for nearly 36 hours, not letting up until the next night.
This Blizzard of ‘78 brought record snowfall – more than 27 inches in Boston and more than 32 inches in Rockport – and hurricane-force winds in places like Revere and Plum Island. The most iconic images, however, are of the literally thousands of vehicles abandoned and buried under snow on the highways as people tried to return home.
Along the coast, houses were ripped from their foundations in Revere and Hull by storm surge. Across New England 2,000 homes were destroyed and more than 10,000 people were forced to evacuate to storm shelters. Nearly 100 people lost their lives to the storm.
The anniversary of this historic storm raises questions about what we have learned since then, and whether we are in danger of something similar – or worse – 40 years later.
A winter storm of '78's magnitude is just as likely in 2018 and beyond, and possibly more so due to climate change.
Such a storm would not cause the same havoc today thanks to the highly sophisticated weather forecasts from which we now benefit.
Every minute of every day, hundreds of satellites zip around the Earth, or maintain tireless vigil over some region of it, relaying images and other data to government agencies, academic research laboratories and private companies. When combined with a vast network of ground-based weather stations and monitors across the planet, we are able to take the Earth’s pulse.
As these sophisticated forecasts warn us of storms to come, they have also helped to reveal a danger of monumental scale: The Earth’s climate is indeed changing.
As we understand more about our planet, we know that every year has been warmer than the last. Even this past year. From high above we see less and less ice covering the Arctic Ocean, we see less snowpack in the Sierras of California and in the Rockies, we see shrinking glaciers in Greenland, in the Alps of Europe, in the Andes of South America, and in the Himalayas of Asia. Other technology shows us that the oceans are warming and rising.
We are in effect engaged in a new level of forecasting, not just about the weather, but also about the climate. As of today, the science and technology tell us that the climate has already changed, that we are responsible, and that the future will be much different from what we have ever experienced.
A warmer climate means warmer air, which can hold more moisture. Air with more moisture is not only more humid, but it carries greater potential for heavy precipitation, both rain and snow. This basic physical fact means that there is a greater likelihood of epic snowstorms or torrential downpours. As a result, all storms have greater potential to be damaging or deadly because they occur in this new climate.
Our ability to understand these weather conditions and alert people of them is remarkable. However, just as we all take precautions amid warnings of inclement weather, we must also understand what this science and technology is telling us about the future of our planet and the role we play in it.
If we do not heed the warnings of climate change – or act as if there is no warning – then we will be that much more vulnerable to the storms ahead.
Marcos Luna, PhD, is a professor of geography at Salem State University, where he coordinates the graduate program in geo-information sciences.