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Blizzard buries New England; power lost, seawalls breached

Millions of New Englanders woke up to a staggering amount of snow as well as coastal flooding problems yesterday after one of the worst winter storms on record slammed the region with whiteout conditions and hurricane-force winds, dumping more than 3 feet of snow in some places.

The storm shut down travel across the region, knocked out power to nearly 700,000 customers, stranded motorists in their vehicles on Long Island, and exceeded benchmarks set during the infamous Blizzard of 1978, which occurred 35 years ago this week.

The storm brought accumulations of at least 30 inches to five states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York.

This was by far the largest single snowstorm on record in Portland, Maine, the fifth-largest snowstorm on record in Boston with 24.9 inches, and the third-largest snowstorm in Worcester, Mass. A band of extraordinarily heavy snow, accompanied by lightning and thunder, dumped several inches of snow per hour across Long Island and Connecticut on Friday night, causing Connecticut to be ground zero for some of the heaviest snow totals.

Numerous locations around Connecticut, which was also hit extremely hard by a freak October blizzard in 2011, reported more than 30 inches of snow. As of 4 p.m. yesterday, the snowfall jackpot belonged to Hamden, Conn., with an astounding 40 inches. New Haven also received 34.3 inches. The National Weather Service posted an interactive graphic containing snow and wind reports for all of New England.

New York City narrowly escaped blizzard conditions, but still received between 8 to 12 inches of snow, with much higher amounts to the north and east of the city.

This storm was noteworthy for delivering extraordinary snowfall amounts in an exceedingly short time, accompanied by near-zero visibility and winds greater than hurricane force (74 mph). The Blizzard of 1978, for example, took three days to deposit a similar amount of snow, whereas this storm dumped up to 10 inches in three hours in southern Connecticut on Friday night.

As the storm intensified rapidly, in a process known to meteorologists as “bombogenesis,” it produced strong wind gusts – 82 mph in Westport, Conn., 83 mph in Cuttyhunk, Mass., and 76 mph at Boston’s Logan Airport. The wind gust at Logan was one of the strongest recorded at that location in 30 years. The storm had a broad footprint, as winds exceeded 50 mph all the way south into Virginia.

The storm caused major coastal flooding along east- and north-facing shoreline locations, particularly Winthrop, and Scituate, Mass., towns that were also hit hard 35 years ago. According to local news reports, a seawall was partially breached in Scituate. Wave heights of at least 31 feet were recorded by a buoy off the coast of Cape Ann, Mass., and large waves were battering the coast on Cape Cod, as well as the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

The storm struck just days after a report warned of the region’s growing vulnerability to such storm-surge events. The report, by the nonprofit Boston Harbor Alliance, found that coastal flooding of 5 feet above the current average high tide – similar to the surge seen during Hurricane Sandy and translating to the city’s 100-year flood level – would flood 6.6 percent of the city of Boston.

Sea levels are rising worldwide due to warming ocean temperatures, melting polar ice caps, and sinking land masses, along with other factors. Higher sea levels provide a higher launching pad for storm surges from hurricanes and nor’easters, making it possible for relatively weak storms to cause major damage.

In Boston, the top five highest storm tides, which is the combination of the tide level and storm surge, all occurred during nor’easters.

According to NOAA’s Climate Extremes Index, during the cold season in the Northeast in recent years, big 24-hour precipitation events have accounted for an increasing proportion of the seasonal precipitation total. This indicates that extreme precipitation events are playing a larger role in the cold season, and these events, including this blizzard, can have major societal impacts.

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