Well, it’s just about in the books. We’re not done with snow chances just yet but the sun is about to win the seasonal battle and we’re slowly pushing our way into spring. How will we look back on the winter of 2017-18? One thing is for certain – it wasn’t boring. We had just about every type of weather and storm you could think up over the past several months. I was thinking back on it the other day, and here’s a little recap of the notables.
Front-loaded? Sort of.
No doubt, all the cold was front-loaded into this winter. Arctic air plowed into the region on Christmas and powered its way into the record books. The stretch of the final week of December through the first week of January was the coldest such stretch on record in the Boston area. We saw eight days stay below the 20ºF mark (a tie for 13th most on record for the season) during this bitter spell. And it never got so cold again for the rest of the winter.
The Charles River looked like something out of Minnesota in early January
The exclamation point during this frigid streak was a blizzard on January 4th, which produced a storm surge so potent it toppled the all-time water level mark in Boston. Whenever you’re beating records set by the Blizzard of ’78, you know you’ve got some serious weather! The surge was timed exactly with high tide, which was already extra high due to a supermoon. The storm also dumped over a foot of snow on parts of the area and enhanced the deep freeze.
La Nina winters are known to feature icy events, and this one was no exception. The worst ice storm of the season came just before Christmas, coating all of the area all the way down to the South Coast in a thick icy glaze. Fortunately, we just barely stayed under the limit for a devastating ice event and didn’t get a 2008 repeat. Even still, it was a travel nightmare before the holiday and did produce damage. Several other smaller icing events kept DPW crews on their toes throughout the winter.
Even the Boston waterfront was on ice two days before Christmas. Photo: Eric Fisher
February rolled into town and one-upped the balmy February of last winter. The month featured a number of records, including the first time we’ve ever recorded consecutive 70ºF+ days during the winter season in Boston. Multiple New England states set all-time records for warmest February temperatures, including some 80s in Connecticut and Massachusetts. The month also tied for warmest on record in Boston, and the combined warmth of late January and February made for a slightly warmer than average winter overall.
Epic Ice Jams
The combination of thick ice formed in January with extreme warmth following it made for some dramatic ice jams, particularly across southern New England. The U.S. Coast Guard spent days on the Connecticut River trying to break up a jam that was flooding and damaging properties along the waterfront. The ice was so thick that it appeared a glacial blue when broken up along the banks. It took all of February’s warmth to melt away much of the ice.
Huge chunks of ice along the Farmington River in Canton, CT. Photo: Eric Fisher
No doubt, the damage produced by March storms was extreme this year and perhaps the worst since the ’70s. Three straight strong nor’easters destroyed portions of the coast, sent several homes into the water, ended the run of some local landmarks, and brought widespread tree damage.
The first nor’easter was wet, windy, and the most destructive at the shore. Winds gusted over 90mph on Cape Cod and the Islands, and flooding over multiple tide cycles ripped up beaches and brought tidewater into numerous neighborhoods. Some homes and businesses that survived the Blizzard of ’78 were taken down or heavily damaged…to be attacked in a vulnerable state by the next storm.
That second nor’easter was most destructive inland as a heavy wet snow brought the most tree damage I can recall from a *snowstorm* since the April Fool’s Blizzard in 1997. There are still piles of broken trees and limbs strewn about the 495 corridor with a lot of spring clean-up on the menu. The coastal flooding was no joke yet again, and it led to the removal of Liam’s snack shack on Nauset Beach which had been standing there since the 1950s. Saltwater was pushed so far inland in Truro that it reached Route 6. Erosion was severe north of Boston as well, with major sand loss at Salisbury Beach, among others.
Then the third nor’easter brought the biggest snows and blizzard conditions. Over two feet fell in communities just north and west of Boston, with a couple reports as high as 30″. Each storm brought its own flavor and host of issues, and when all was said and done we ended up with the 2nd snowiest March on record in Worcester and the 4th snowiest on record in Boston.
As for temperatures, we yet again managed something very rare. March was colder than February. This is the second straight year it has happened in Boston, while it previously had only been observed twice in the past 144 years. A big part of this has been the February warmth more than the March cold. This year, March is ending up about 1ºF colder than average, not very notable. But February came in tied for the warmest on record. Last year was the 5th warmest at the time, and is now 6th warmest. We’ve really seen a strange flip of major winter warmth and then a stalled spring in recent years.
*Through March 29th. Final March average temperature projected to be 37.2ºF
What Caused The Wild March?
A complex interaction in the atmosphere was the main driver for our very stormy and snowy March. A high-amplitude pattern in February lead to some major poleward energy flux. This in turn produced a sudden warming of the stratosphere, and in the case of early February a total split of the polar vortex. The effects of these SSW events aren’t always identical, and it took time for this to impact us on the East Coast. The split initially allowed brutally cold air to leak west from Asia to Europe, and also sent waves of arctic cold into the western U.S.
We never really got into the brutal cold, but a SSW can also bring about a push of the general storm track farther south (equatorward) and help a negative North Atlantic Oscillation to develop. And whoa did we get a doozy. A -NAO is essentially a way of saying there is a large area of high pressure over Greenland, or a North Atlantic block. This allows storms to get held up along the east coast of the U.S. and often these slower moving storms can be monsters. No doubt, we had our share of that. The -NAO was so strong we are just breaking it down now…and it may even be able to regain some ground again later in April.
So How Did The Winter Outlook Do?
Our thoughts from November proved to be spot on for the first three months of winter, before all hell broke loose in March. We did indeed front-load the cold and a good portion of the snowfall, and December was the coldest month of the season versus average. The warmth fighting back in January and February made for a warmer than average winter overall. We had several ice storms, and northern New England had a huge snowfall season. It was all clippers with just one coastal storm through February. Check, check, check. And then…..March. Curse you March! The first ‘spring’ month ruined the snowfall prognostication. My thinking of 40″ give or take 5″ went down with the final March snowstorm. And we had three straight major coastal storms. So much for that.
Keep in mind, these seasonal outlooks are part fun, part research, part educated guesses, but in the end no one should take them to the bank. We give them as opinions on what may lay ahead and for the past several years they’ve all been pretty good! I’ll take that as a win considering none of us are experts in long range forecasting given our jobs have always been focused on the next 5-10 days.
No big warmth on the horizon for us here in April I’m afraid. While the Greenland block is breaking down, we now have a large ridge over the Aleutians of Alaska. This is the perfect setup to allow cold arctic air to funnel on down into the Lower 48. So while one pattern finally gives us a little of a break, another keeps the chill coming. While not as harsh as what you would get in January or February thanks to 13 hours of daylight giving us a hand, it’ll bring us many more days with highs stuck in the 40s and perhaps even a couple in the 30s, especially higher terrain.
There are a few chances for snowflakes still hanging on to go along with this cold. We’ll have a chance for a bit of wet snow on Monday, another chance for some wet flakes, especially north of Boston, on Tuesday. And yet another chance for wintry precipitation during the first weekend of April. To be honest, I wouldn’t even rule out another chance after that in the middle of the month. Once the Aleutian Ridge breaks down, there are signs the -NAO just comes right back instead. While it’s increasingly difficult to get anything significant in the snow department by mid-April, I would wait on draining the gas out of the snowblower for a little while longer.