What’s a nor’easter?

Notable nor'easters

Every year, a slew of tropical cyclones (many of which evolve into full-fledged hurricanes) receive new monikers from NOAA's National Hurricane Center. Six lists of hurricane names are rotated and approved by the World Meteorological Organization. The organization, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, relies on an international voting committee to retire the names of particularly devastating storms, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and appoint new names to replace them [source: World Meteorological Association].

But don't expect the same name recognition to be given to nor'easters. Although the Weather Channel began calling an October 2012 nor'easter that erupted on the heels of Hurricane Sandy "Athena," few others followed suit. In fact, the National Weather Service refused to recognize the storm's name and ordered its staff not to use the term in its coverage. Many media, including The Associated Press, didn't name the storm in their coverage, either [source: Sistek].

Despite the confusion about whether a private U.S.-based entity (the Weather Channel) should be naming storms without the buy-in of a global weather community, one thing's for certain: Even without a name, a nor'easter can cause widespread and memorable damage.

Take the Great Blizzard of March 1888, for example. Ushered in by a powerful nor'easter, this storm settled over New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut for two days, and dropped up to 50 inches (127 centimeters) of snow. The unseasonably late storm literally buried about half of its 400 victims in snowdrifts that piled up between downtown buildings. It snapped telegraph poles. It shut down rail lines and trapped passengers in rail cars for days. And in the months that followed, the storm did something else, too. It prompted New York City's officials to design and build an extensive subway system. It also led to buried telegraph and electrical lines [source: Burt].

Although the Great Blizzard of 1888 is still part of the U.S.'s weather-disaster lexicon, there have been at least a dozen other notable nor'easters since that storm made its snowy mark on history. For instance, "The Perfect Storm" of 1991 which damaged or destroyed 1,000 homes. (A movie was made about it later). And, with as many as 40 nor'easters expected to fire annually, odds are we'll see another big one in the not-too-distant future.

Author's Note: What's a nor'easter?

The accounts of the Great Blizzard of 1888 astound me. Pedestrians in downtown New York City buried in drifts. Commuters who never made it home. Others who walked across the East River, which had frozen solid. This legendary nor'easter was also one of the first captured in photographs. Black-and-white snapshots documented the storms' aftermath and offer a modern-day illustration of the disastrous storm that left more than 400 dead. While I don't wish for a storm of that magnitude (50 inches of snow!) to silence any part of the world, I don't mind witnessing a few snowy drifts now and again.

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  • Burt, Christopher. "The Great Blizzard of 1888: America's Greatest Snow Disaster." March 15, 2012. (Dec. 7, 2012) Wunderground. http://www.wunderground.com/blog/weatherhistorian/comment.html?entrynum=65
  • Edwards, Brian. "Nor'easter: Flooding, Damage, Power Outages, Delays." Nov. 7, 2012. (Dec. 7, 2012) AccuWeather. http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/noreaster-to-cause-flooding-da/1138252
  • McGrath, Ben. "Nor'easter." Sept. 5, 2005. (Dec. 6, 2012) The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/09/05/050905ta_talk_mcgrath
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Dangers of Nor'easters." (Dec. 6, 2012) http://www.noaa.gov/features/03_protecting/noreasters.html
  • Schaefer, Steve. "Stock Market to Reopen Wednesday After Hurricane Sandy Hammers New York." Oct. 30, 2012. (Dec. 6, 2012) Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/steveschaefer/2012/10/30/all-quiet-on-wall-street-in-sandys-wake-exchanges-work-to-restart-trading/
  • Sistek, Scott. "Naming Nor'easter 'Athena' Creates Controversy in Weather Community." Nov. 7, 2012. (Dec. 6, 2012) http://www.komonews.com/weather/blogs/scott/Naming-NorEaster-Athena-creates-controversy-in-weather-community-177753001.html
  • The Weather Channel. "Nor'Easters." (Dec. 6, 2012) http://www.weather.com/encyclopedia/winter/noreast.html
  • The Weather Channel Kids. "Types of Winter Storms." (Dec. 6, 2012) http://www.theweatherchannelkids.com/weather-ed/weather-encyclopedia/winter-storms/types-of-winter-storms/
  • World Meteorological Organization. "Tropical Cyclone Naming." (Dec. 7, 2012) http://www.wmo.int/pages/prog/www/tcp/Storm-naming.html

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