Science Scope

Blizzard rhythm beats The Big Apple

Blizzard rhythm beats The Big Apple

Posting in Cities

NASA's GOES-13 satellite captured the storm that whipped through much of New England. Canceled travel plans? Here's a look from the sky.

I've been living in New York for four years, and I have never seen the city come to a complete stand-still. The city that never sleeps is literally frozen. Thank you, blizzard.

I, personally, have been holed up in my apartment for three days. Beyond my warm apartment, I know that thousands of flights were canceled. Now, there's a backlog of flights that will leave people stranded for days. People got stuck on the subway in New York for hours. I feel for them.

The horror stories keep trickling into the news. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg reassures that, "The world has not come to an end. The city's going on." Needless-to-say, it's easier to react to emergencies than prepare for bad storms. Our transportation system is slowly recovering and people are getting to where they need to go or want to go.

Why was the storm so bad this year, I wondered. Then I realized that this is actually the first blizzard I've seen — and been stuck in. Ever. Blame my Floridian upbringing for thinking frost on the ground was the worst thing ever.

Central Park looks pretty spectacular covered in snow.

From my apartment, I watched the snow cover the streets and saw skyscrapers disappear from view as the wind whipped up the snow flakes. But eventually the sun rose again. Hearing bulldozers make the roads drivable and hearing people on the streets, reminded me that the snow build-up is temporary and the city is alive again.

The snow will melt, eventually.

NASA provided another view all together. The satellites used to keep track of the weather every day are also the ones that are used to warn us of these winter storms.

Storms move across the U.S. by the jet stream. When low pressure systems form, it makes the jet stream unstable. However, low pressure systems allow clouds to form. When it starts circulating, you get the storm systems. When the low pressure moves out, high pressure comes in behind it and brings the gusty winds with it.

I spoke to the creator of the animation, Dennis Chesters, about the blizzard.

Chesters is based at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Lab.

Chesters flipped through a book on his shelf called "Great Blizzards of New York City" by Kevin Ambrose (1994), and looked at photos of great blizzards in 1888, 1899, 1920, 1935, 1947, 1961, 1969, 1978, 1983, 1993 and 1994.

So, blizzards happen.

Here's the scientific reason why: East Coast blizzards occur in concert with the world-wide ENSO variations, roughly every decade.  "I can personally recall similar blizzards paralyzing the Washington DC area in 1978, 1983, 1993-4, and 2009-10.  Great blizzards paralyzing New York City and Boston are legendary," Chesters said.

The storm didn't come out of nowhere, though. It was over Colorado before it slid over to the East Coast and strengthened.

"This blizzard was the reincarnation of the storm that hit California last week, yet another powerful loop in a world-wide series of disturbances.  The recent storms across Europe and Russia are more unusually strong loops in the jet stream," Chesters said. "Climatologically, these are due to a variation in the location of the quasi-static high- and low-pressure systems around the northern hemisphere.  For instance, there is a high pressure system over the mid-Atlantic (normally, the Bermuda high) accompanied by a low pressure system over Iceland."

Okay, this is what is happening right now. "This year, this North Atlantic Oscillation pair weakened and moved eastward. Last summer, that allowed hurricanes to move northward across the mid-Atlantic instead of the west-Atlantic, sparing the US East Coast. This winter, that pattern allows polar outbreaks to move freely across the eastern USA, freezing the East Coast in December.  On the other side of the Atlantic, Europe gets unusual amounts of polar air and snow," Chesters said.

To create the animation, Chesters used the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's GOES weather satellite, which scans clouds four times per hour. He then put them over a color map from NASA's TERRA climate satellite. The movies made this way can be seen here.

"The GOES views of snow storms are most useful for observing lake-effect snows and offshore intensity. Because snow forms at low altitude and is rather transparent to weather radar, the GOES cloud observations provide data that the weather radar doesn't see," Chesters said.

But remember, storms aren't totally predictable.

"In the last 30 years, chaos theory has demonstrated that weather and climate is inherently unpredictable to some limit because of natural instabilities in the atmosphere. That limit has been slowly pushed out by better observations and computer models," Chesters said.

"For instance, the 1978 East Coast blizzard, which developed much like the recent one, was unpredicted.  The 2010 blizzards have had good 3- to 5-day forecasts, with well-advertised uncertainty in the storm track.  It's not clear how much past 5 days we can ever make a reliable weather forecast for a naturally unstable situation," Chesters added.

When I posted a picture of the snow build-up on my Facebook page, one friend remembered when a blizzard whipped through New York in 1947, people went skiing on Park Avenue.

Some things never change.

Some people are already sledding in Prospect Park.

As for me, I think it's time to leave the apartment!

Photo: NOAA/NASA GOES Project

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech,, and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure