For most who grew up in New England, “Blizzard of ‘78” needs no explaining. What has become known as the benchmark storm for New England has since been outdone – at least in the record books – by a higher snow total and, as of this January, a higher coastal flood level, but Feb. 6, 1978, has yet to be outdone in New England memory and lore.
The late 1970s were a different time all-around: the cost of a new home was just over $60,000 and a gallon of gas was just over 60 cents, cheaper than a dozen eggs at 80 cents or a gallon of milk at $1.70.
It was also a different time in weather forecasting: technology paled in comparison, with today’s smartphone nearly equivalent to a super-computer of the 1970s. Of course, early technology meant weather forecasting guidance was also in early development, and unable to predict many of the complexities of the atmosphere.
It was clear a storm was coming – the Boston National Weather Service hoisted a Winter Storm Watch nearly 30 hours before the storm began and forecast a blizzard more than 12 hours ahead of time... and that was great guidance in 1978.
Some who aren’t tuned into forecast verification – how good forecasts are - would argue we’ve made almost no progress in meteorology since those days – that human intuition and reading the weather patterns as they evolved was a more accurate method than analyzing any of today’s technology. The forecast accuracy scores of short-term forecasts and 10-day forecasts like our exclusive Early Warning Weather forecast, along with forecast rain and snow depictions to 15-minute intervals from our exclusive model, prove that notion incorrect. Indeed, it was the nuances like snow timing that proved critical in February of ’78, as the snow arrived hours late, and the public, by and large, discounted how strong the storm would actually be.
So, to some extent, the Blizzard of 1978 may remain untouchable. The intensity and longevity of the event – or at least one of those facets - would be hard to miss from a day or two out with modern technology (though, admittedly, not impossible). I would suggest, however, that the horrific impact of the blizzard – stranding cars for days on Boston area highways, inundating coastal communities with frigid ocean water necessitating rescues, and the epic snowfall totals – certainly could repeat.
In 1978, accidents and a jack-knifed tractor trailer ground traffic to a halt as the heaviest snow moved in, making it nearly impossible for plows to clear snow from the highways. The result was abandoned cars and people trapped in their vehicles.
My father was a Massachusetts State Trooper, and I’ve been regaled with memories from he and his colleagues about the state police going car to car, up and down the highways, and the valiant efforts of everyday citizens to help one another. Everyone who was alive for the Blizzard of ’78 has their story. Several years ago, for the 30th anniversary in 2008, I invited viewers to share their remembrances of 1978, and some of your stories are forever in my memory – from being trapped in your own car to cross country skiing home and even riding out the storm in a sailboat.
Not everyone saw a wintry lashing. My colleague and NBC10 Boston and necn meteorologist Tim Kelley was a resident on Cape Cod in 1978 and recalls, “For me it was a major disappointment because it was rain on Cape Cod and the sun came out, even as the blizzard raged 50 miles away.” The fascination that weather could be so different over such a small distance that day became Tim’s strongest motivator in becoming a meteorologist.
1978 Commute Rivaled, But Not Equaled: Fast-forward to Dec. 17, 2013. I was on-air on necn in the morning and our team predicted the worst commute for some of the Boston area since the Blizzard of ’78. It was a bold statement, perhaps, but not a bold forecast, as it was the same convergence of nature and human nature. Snow started late morning, but a burst of very heavy snow was expected to arrive by early afternoon, and that’s exactly when private and public employers decided to send employees home, as the snow started falling at two to three inches per hour. This put a large number of cars on the road at the same time, during the heaviest snow, making it nearly impossible for plows to keep up with the snowfall rate, amidst heavy volume, resulting in commutes in excess of eight hours from Boston to the Merrimack Valley. The situation was compounded by jack-knifed tractor trailers on the Massachusetts Turnpike westbound at Charlton, and another on the ramp from Interstate 93 north onto Interstate 95 south in Reading. Another semi would stall in snow on the ramp from 290 east to 495 north in Marlborough. Some cars were abandoned, but human impact and severity was far less than 1978, owing largely to a storm that didn’t linger for days like ’78 did when it stalled off of our coastline.
The 1978 Snowfall Record Broken: The new record snowfall in Boston, surpassing the Blizzard of 1978, was set by the President’s Day snowstorm of 2003, hitting 27.6 inches to top 1978’s 27.1 inches. Admittedly, there are still doubts over the veracity of this snow total, as it’s been raised that snow was not measured in the same fashion, not allowing snow to compact over several hours and thereby inflating results, but the records are the records, and, no matter, nature will provide a more resounding record-beater if given enough time.
Coastal Flood Level of 1978 Broken: Just weeks ago, our Jan. 4 blizzard (though it wasn’t technically a blizzard in Boston) delivered a water level that broke the Blizzard of 1978 record, by inches, as the highest water level ever recorded in Boston since installation of the tidal gauge in 1921. The Blizzard of 1978 brought a water level of 15.10 feet and on Jan. 4, 2018, the water rose to 15.16 feet - another Blizzard of 1978 record falls. With predicted sea level rise ahead, extreme storms will very likely continue to set new records in the years and decades ahead.
Of course, even with all of the records now broken, there still is no storm that looms as large in the rear-view mirror as the Blizzard of 1978. These records prove we’ve had storms more intense, but not lasting for days on end following a “perfect commute storm” setup of a burst of heavy snow at the same time the highest volume was on the roads. It seems safe to say, in the court of public opinion and human impact, a Storm for the Ages in New England needs to be not only powerful, but also long-lasting.
Given the combination of extreme precipitation events, rising sea level, rising ocean surface temperatures making for more available energy and intense clashes of large-scale warming air with shots of intense cold, the players are all on the table to outperform the Blizzard of 1978 – of that, I have no question. Perhaps a winter version of Sandy, you could theorize. Remember, that was a well forecast storm, devoid of many surprise elements, but will never be forgotten by those impacted, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic, and it is their new benchmark.
To say we will see a storm that tops the Blizzard of 1978 in New England is not hype, nor sensationalism, it’s just sound reasoning based on scientific observation. But until that time, the Blizzard of 1978 remains the Boss of New England storms.