Updated Jan 26, 2022 - Science

Blizzard likely to hit New England this weekend as "bomb cyclone" forms

Computer model projection of the precipitation from a major storm in New England.

Computer model projection of the precipitation and wind field from the weekend storm in the Northeast. (Earth.nullschool.net)

For the most up-to-date information on this storm, follow this link.

A powerful blizzard is likely to strike parts of New England and the Mid-Atlantic beginning Friday and lasting into the weekend, with snow totals that are likely to be measured in feet.

The big picture: The joining of weather systems embedded in both the polar, or northern branch, of the jet stream and the southern branch is projected to create a bomb cyclone. Such storms undergo a process known as bombogenesis, with their minimum central air pressure readings plunging at least 24 millibars in 24 hours.

Details: While it is clear that a powerful storm will develop off the East Coast, the details regarding its intensity, as well as its exact track are still coming into focus. As of Wednesday afternoon, two of the most reliable computer modeling systems, the European model and the American GFS, differed on how far west the heavy snow would reach.

  • The European model solution shows heavy snow, on the order of 1 to 2 feet or more, falling from eastern New Jersey to Long Island, northeastward to Boston and the state of Maine.
  • The GFS, on the other hand, keeps the center of the storm far enough offshore to spare the Mid-Atlantic entirely, including New York, from a crippling blow, and instead confines the heaviest snow to eastern New England.
Computer model projection of snowfall totals from the upcoming blizzard in the Mid-Atlantic and New England.
Snowfall projection from a blend of computer models put together by the National Weather Service. (Weatherbell.com)
  • “I know you’ve heard it repeated to death, but the key message continues to be the same: guidance is trending favorably for a big storm, but the exact track remains uncertain,” the National Weather Service in Boston wrote in forecast discussion Wednesday morning.

Between the lines: The computer model differences stem from how they each handle the location and eventual interaction between the different pieces of energy that will create this winter storm.

  • If the weather disturbances in the upper atmosphere link up, or "phase," earlier, then there's a greater likelihood of a blockbuster snowstorm in the Big Apple. A later phasing reduces that chance.

Threat level: Where the heaviest snow falls, blizzard conditions may develop, with winds of 50 mph or higher whipping the snow into tall drifts and lowering visibility to near zero at times.

  • Winds could gust as high as hurricane force (74 mph) or greater on Cape Cod and the Islands on Saturday and Saturday night.
  • There is agreement among computer model guidance and forecasters at the National Weather Service that eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island stand the best chance of seeing the heaviest snowfall, with this storm becoming the biggest snow event there since 2018.
  • In addition to the heavy snow and high winds, there is the potential for coastal flooding, as winds push high waves and a storm surge onshore. Nor'easters like this one, so named because of their strong winds blowing from the northeast to southwest, can cause significant beach erosion and flood low-lying coastal areas.
  • Travel disruptions are likely across southern New England, and possibly a wider area than that, during this time period, including the possible shutdown of major airports in the region.

Context: While nor'easters have been a feature of New England winters for generations, their characteristics and threats are shifting due to global warming.

  • As sea levels rise, nor'easters are able to inflict even more flood damage than they used to just a few decades ago.
  • In addition, as the storm approaches New England, it will traverse record warm ocean waters for this time of year, which could help intensify the system and also may wrap milder air into the storm system.
  • The Gulf of Maine in particular is one of the fastest-warming ocean regions on Earth, a trend tied to climate change and other factors.
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