Nor’easter Storms in the United States

Caitlin Dempsey

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A nor’easter is a type of storm that is particularly common along the East Coast of the United States and in the Atlantic Canada region. The name “nor’easter” originates from the direction of the winds that come from the northeast and impact the coast, especially from the fall through the spring. These storms are characterized by strong northeasterly winds blowing in from the ocean ahead of the storm and can lead to severe weather conditions, including heavy snow, rain, high winds, and coastal flooding.

Nor’easters develop due to the contrast in temperature between the warm Gulf Stream ocean current coming from the south and the cold air masses coming down from Canada. When these air masses collide over the North Atlantic, they can create a powerful storm system. The path and intensity of nor’easters can be influenced by a variety of factors, including the jet stream, the distribution of high and low pressure systems, and the sea surface temperatures.

Nor’easter typically form around the latitudes between New Jersey and Georgia before moving predominantly in a northeast direction, often reaching their peak intensity around New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. It’s the difference in temperature between the cold Arctic air brought south by the polar jet stream over land and the warmer air over the Atlantic Ocean that moves up forming over the Gulf Stream currents that creates the ideal conditions for nor’easters to form.

These storms can have significant impacts on the areas they hit, including disrupting transportation, causing power outages, and resulting in considerable damage to infrastructure. In winter, nor’easters are often associated with heavy snowfall and blizzard conditions, making them a significant weather event.

Nor’easters can bring heavy snowfall

The arrival of a nor’easter to the East Coast of the United States can bring heavy snowfall. Between December 16 and 17, 2020, a nor’easter dumped over 40 inches (1 meter) of snow to inland parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

On December 17, 2020, NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this image of the storm as it began its departure over the Atlantic Ocean, revealing clear skies and a widespread blanket of snow covering the Mid-Atlantic states, extending from the Appalachian Mountains to the Interstate 95 corridor.

On January 3, 2018, a nor’easter brought snow to the Southeast with Tallahassee, Florida experiencing snowfall for the first time in about 30 years. That same storm also dropped snow on Savannah, Georgia, a region that typically averages daytime temperatures around 60°F in January, and was preceded by a cold snap that froze the water in fountains in the area.

Famous nor’easters

Several notable nor’easters have left their mark in history, including the infamous Blizzard of 1888, the “Ash Wednesday” storm in March 1962, the New England Blizzard in February 1978, the “Superstorm” in March 1993, and the series of snowstorms that hit Boston in January and February 2015.

What is the difference between a nor’easter and a hurricane?

While both nor’easters and hurricanes are intensely strong storms that form over the Atlantic Ocean, there are some differences between them.

Nor’easters and hurricanes are distinct types of storms with different formation processes, impacts, and geographic occurrences.

Nor’easters form over the western Atlantic, primarily affecting the Northeastern United States and Canada’s Maritime Provinces with heavy snow, rain, and northeasterly winds and are strongest between fall and spring.

Hurricanes are warm-core tropical cyclones that develop over warm Atlantic ocean waters, typically in the summer and fall, and are characterized by a well-defined eye, high winds, and storm surges, mostly impacting the Southeastern United States, Gulf Coast, and the Caribbean.

While nor’easters can bring significant snowfall and cold weather-related impacts, hurricanes are known for their intense wind, heavy rain, and potential for devastating coastal flooding, categorized by the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale based on their wind speed.

Nor’easters gain strength and develop in the presence of cold atmospheric conditions, while hurricanes get their energy and intensify from warm ocean air.

Powerful winter East Coast storm

Nor’easters are powerful storms that impact the East Coast of the United States and are the strongest between September and April. These storms form when cold air from Canada meets the warmer waters of the Atlantic Ocean, leading to heavy snowfall, rain, and strong northeasterly winds. Affecting both the Northeastern United States and the Canadian Maritime Provinces, nor’easters can cause significant disruptions, including power outages and transportation delays.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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