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North American winter nor'easter during Christmas 2010
Type macro-scale Extratropical cyclone

A nor'easter (also northeaster; see below) is a macro-scale storm along the upper East Coast of the United States and Atlantic Canada; it gets its name from the direction the wind is coming from. The usage of the term in North America comes from the wind associated with many different types of storms, some of which can form in the North Atlantic Ocean and some of which form as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. The term is most often used in the coastal areas of the upper East Coast north of New York City, United States. A nor'easter is a low pressure area that often passes just off the New England and southeast Canada Atlantic coastline. Winds in the left-forward quadrant rotate onto land from the northeast. The precipitation pattern is similar to that of other extratropical storms. Nor'easters can cause severe coastal flooding, coastal erosion, hurricane force winds or blizzard conditions; these conditions are usually accompanied with very heavy rain or snow, depending on when the storm occurs. Nor'easters thrive on the converging air masses; that is, the polar cold air mass and the warmer oceanic air over the Gulf Stream.[1][2]

Etymology and usage

The term nor'easter came to American English by way of British English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use in the English language of the term "nore" ("north") in association with the points of the compass and wind direction was by Dekker in 1612: "How blowes the winde Syr?" "Wynde! is Nore-Nore-West."

Similar uses occurred in 1688 (… Nore and Nore-West …) and in 1718 (… Nore-west or Nore-nore-west.) These recorded uses are predated by use of the term "noreast", first recorded as used by Davis in 1594 (Noreast by North raiseth a degree in sayling 24 leagues.) and shown, for instance, on a compass card published in 1607. Thus, the manner of pronouncing from memory the 32 points of the compass, known in maritime training as "boxing the compass", is described by Ansted[3] with pronunciations "Nor'east (or west)," "Nor' Nor'-east (or west)," "Nor'east b' east (or west)," and so forth. According to the OED, the first recorded use of the term "nor'easter" occurs in 1836 in a translation of Aristophanes. The term "nor'easter" naturally developed from the historical spellings and pronunciations of the compass points and the direction of wind or sailing.

As noted in a January 2006 editorial by William Sisson, editor of Soundings magazine,[4] use of "nor'easter" to describe the storm system is common along the U.S. East Coast. Yet it has been asserted by linguist Mark Liberman (see below) that "nor'easter" as a contraction for "northeaster" has no basis in regional New England dialect and is a "fake" word. However, this view neglects the little-known etymology and the historical maritime usage described above.

Nineteenth-century Downeast mariners pronounced the compass point "north northeast" as "no'nuth-east", and so on. For decades, Edgar Comee, of Brunswick, Maine, waged a determined battle against use of the term "nor'easter" by the press, which usage he considered "a pretentious and altogether lamentable affectation" and "the odious, even loathsome, practice of landlubbers who would be seen as salty as the sea itself". His efforts, which included mailing hundreds of postcards, were profiled, just before his death at the age of 88, in The New Yorker.[5]

Despite the efforts of Comee and others, use of the term continues by the press. According to Boston Globe writer Jan Freeman, "from 1975 to 1980, journalists used the nor’easter spelling only once in five mentions of such storms; in the past year (2003), more than 80 percent of northeasters were spelled nor'easter".[6]

University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman has pointed out that while the OED cites examples dating back to 1837, these examples represent the contributions of a handful of non-New England poets and writers. Liberman posits that "nor'Easter" may have originally been a literary affectation, akin to "e'en" for "even" and "th'only" for "the only", which is an indication in spelling that two syllables count for only one position in metered verse, with no implications for actual pronunciation.[7]

However, despite these assertions, the term can be found in the writings of New Englanders going back at least to the 19th century.

  • Thomas Bailey Aldrich, in his semi-autobiographical work The Story of a Bad Boy (1870), wrote "We had had several slight flurries of hail and snow before, but this was a regular nor'easter".[8]
  • In her story "In the Gray Goth" (1869) Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward wrote "...and there was snow in the sky now, setting in for a regular nor'easter".[9]
  • John H. Tice, in A new system of meteorology, designed for schools and private students (1878), wrote During this battle, the dreaded, disagreeable and destructive Northeaster rages over the New England, the Middle States, and southward. No nor'easter ever occurs except when there is a high barometer headed off and driven down upon Nova Scotia and Lower Canada.[10]

Usage existed into the 20th century in the form of:

  • Current event description, as the Publication Committee of the New York Charity Organization Society wrote in Charities and the commons: a weekly journal of philanthropy and social advance, Volume 19 (1908): In spite of a heavy "nor'easter," the worst that has visited the New England coast in years, the hall was crowded.[11]
  • Historical reference, as used by Mary Rogers Bangs in Old Cape Cod (1917): In December of 1778, the Federal brig General Arnold, Magee master and twelve Barnstable men among the crew, drove ashore on the Plymouth flats during a furious nor'easter, the "Magee storm" that mariners, for years after, used as a date to reckon from.[12]
  • A common contraction for "northeaster", as listed in Ralph E. Huschke's Glossary of meteorology (1959).[13]

Geography and formation characteristics


Nor'easters develop in response to the sharp contrast in the warm Gulf Stream ocean current coming up from the tropical Atlantic and the cold air masses coming down from NE Canada. When the very cold and dry air rushes southward and meets up with the warm Gulf stream current (often near 70 F/21 C even in mid winter) intense low pressure develops. The divergence or diffluence in the upper atmosphere caused by the Jet Stream removes and disperses the rising air at a faster rate than it is replaced at the surface, which, along with the Coriolis Force, creates and develops a storm. Their northeast track brings them up along the East Coast past the mid-Atlantic and New England coastal states. The counterclockwise flow around a low-pressure system brings the warm moist oceanic air over land. The warm moist air meets cold air carried southward by the trough. The low enhances the surrounding pressure gradient, which acts to spiral the very different air masses toward each other at an even faster rate. The greater the temperature differences between the two air masses the greater the turbulence and instability, and the more severe the storm can become.[14][15]

The nor'easters taking the East Coast track usually indicates the presence of a high-pressure area in the vicinity of Nova Scotia.[16] Sometimes a noreaster will move slightly inland and bring rain to the cities on the coastal plain (NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, ...etc.) and snow up in New England (Boston northward), it can move slightly offshore, bringing a wet snow to cities below Boston all the way down to Richmond, VA.[14] Such a storm will rapidly intensify, tracking northward and following the topography of the East Coast, sometimes continuing to grow stronger during its entire existence. A nor'easter usually reaches its peak intensity while off the Canadian coast. The storm then reaches Arctic areas, and can reach intensities equal to that of a weak hurricane. It then meanders throughout the North Atlantic and can last for several weeks.[14]


Nor'easters are usually formed by an area of vorticity associated with an upper-level disturbance or from a kink in a frontal surface that causes a surface low-pressure area to develop. Such storms are very often formed from the merging of several weaker storms, a "parent storm", and a polar jet stream mixing with the tropical jet stream.

Until the nor'easter passes, thick, dark, low-level clouds often block out the sun. Temperatures usually fall significantly due to the presence of the cooler air from winds that typically come from a northeasterly direction. During a single storm, the precipitation can range from a torrential downpour to a fine mist. All precipitation types can occur in a nor'easter. High wind gusts, which can reach hurricane strength, are also associated with a nor'easter. On very rare occasions, such as in the North American blizzard of 2006 and a nor'easter in 1978, the center of the storm can take on the circular shape more typical of a hurricane and have a small eye.

Difference from tropical cyclones

Often, people mistake nor'easters for tropical cyclones and do not differentiate between the two weather systems. Nor'easters differ from tropical cyclones in that nor'easters are cold-core, low-pressure systems, meaning that they thrive on cold air. Tropical cyclones are warm-core low-pressure systems, which means they thrive on warm temperatures.

Difference from other extratropical storms

A nor'easter is formed in a strong extratropical cyclone, usually experiencing bombogenesis. While this formation occurs in many places around the world, nor'easters are unique for their combination of northeast winds and moisture content of the swirling clouds. Nearly similar conditions sometimes occur during winter in the Pacific Northeast (northern Japan and northwards) with winds from NW-N. In Europe, similar weather systems with such severity are hardly possible; the moisture content of the clouds is usually not high enough to cause flooding or heavy snow, though NE winds can be strong.


The eastern United States, from Virginia to Maine, and Atlantic Canada can experience nor'easters, though most often they impact the areas from Boston/New England northward. The effects of a noreaster sometimes bring high tides and strong winds as far south as coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Surfers wait in anticipation when a nor'easter is formed. Nor'easters cause a significant amount of severe beach erosion in these areas, as well as flooding in the associated low-lying areas.

Biologists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod have determined Nor'easters are an environmental factor for red tides of the Atlantic coast.

Notable nor'easters

Here is a list of notable nor'easters, followed by a short description about the event.

  • The Great Blizzard of 1888 - Was one of the worst blizzards in U.S. history. Dropped 40-50 inches of snow, killed 400 people, mostly in New York.
  • The Great Appalachian Storm of November 1950 - A very severe storm that dumped over 30 inches of snow in many major metropolitan areas along the Eastern United States, record breaking temperatures, and hurricane-force winds. The storm killed 353 people.
  • The Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 - Caused severe tidal flooding and blizzard conditions from the Mid-Atlantic to New England, killed 40 people.
  • The Eastern Canadian Blizzard of March 1971 - Dropped over 32 inches of snow over areas of eastern Canada, killed at least 30 people.
  • The Groundhog Day gale of 1976 - Caused blizzard conditions for much of New England and eastern Canada, dropping a maximum of 56 inches of snow.
  • The Northeastern United States blizzard of 1978 - A catastrophic storm, which dropped over 27 inches of snow in areas of New England, kills a total of 100 people, mainly people trapped in their cars on the highway.
  • The 1991 Perfect Storm (the "Perfect Storm," combined Nor'easter/hurricane) - Very unusual storm which evolved into a hurricane, tidal surge caused severe damage to coastal areas, especially Massachusetts, killed 13 people.
  • The December 1992 nor'easter
  • The Storm of the Century (1993) - A superstorm which affected the entire eastern U.S., parts of eastern Canada and Cuba. It caused 6.65 billion (2008 USD) in damage, and killed 310 people.
  • The Christmas 1994 Nor'easter - An intense storm which affected the east coast of the U.S., and exhibited traits of a tropical cyclone.
  • The North American blizzard of 1996 - Severe snowstorm which brought up to 4 feet of snow to areas of the mid-atlantic and northeastern U.S., and killed a total of 154 people.
  • The North American blizzard of 2003 - Dropped over 2 feet of snow in several major cities, including Boston, and New York City, affected large areas of the Northeastern U.S., and killed a total of 27 people.
  • White Juan of 2004 - A blizzard that affected Atlantic Canada, crippling transportation in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and dropping over 37 inches of snow in areas.
  • The North American blizzard of 2005 - Brought blizzard conditions to southern New England and dropped over 40 inches of snow in areas of Massachusetts.
  • The North American blizzard of 2006 - A powerful storm that developed a hurricane-like eye when off the coast of New Jersey. It brought over 30+ inches of snow in some areas and killed 3 people.
  • The April 2007 nor'easter - An unusually late storm that dumped heavy snow in parts of Northern New England and Canada and heavy rains elsewhere. The storm caused a total of 18 fatalities.
  • Nor'Ida (2009) - Formed from the remants of Hurricane Ida, produced moderate storm surge, strong winds and very heavy rainfall throughout the mid-atlantic region. It caused 300 million (2009 USD) in damage, and killed 6 people.
  • The December 2010 North American blizzard - was a major blizzard which affected large metropolitan areas including New York City, Philadelphia, Providence, and Boston. In some of these areas, the storm brought up to 2 feet of snow.
  • In January 2011, two nor'easters struck the East Coast of the United States just two weeks apart and severely crippled New England and the Mid-Alantic. During the first of the two storms, a record of 40 inches was recorded in Savoy, Massachusetts. A total of 2 people were killed.
  • The 2011 Halloween nor'easter - was a rare, historic nor'easter, which produced record breaking snowfall for October in many areas of the Northeastern U.S., especially New England. The storm produced a maximum of 32 inches of snow in Peru, Massachusetts, and killed 39 people. After the storm, the rest of the winter for New England remained very quiet, with much less than average snowfall and no other significant storms to strike the region for the rest of the season.
  • The remnants of Hurricane Sandy (also known as Superstorm Sandy) took on traits of a nor'easter after merging with a cold front upon making landfall in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The storm dumped over 2 to 3 feet of snow in West Virginia.
  • The December 25th-28th nor'easter (named by The Weather Channel as "Winter Storm Euclid") - A major nor'easter that was notable for its tornado outbreak across the Gulf Coast states on Christmas day as well as giving areas such as northeastern Texas a white Christmas. The low underwent secondary cyclogenesis near the coast of North Carolina and dumped a swath of heavy snow across northern New England and New York, caused blizzard conditions across the Ohio Valley, as well as an ice storm in the mountains of the Virginias.
  • The February 2013 nor'easter (named by The Weather Channel as "Winter Storm Nemo")- An extremely powerful and historic nor'easter that dumped heavy snow and unleashed hurricane force wind gusts across New England. Many areas received well over 2 feet of snow, especially Connecticut, Rhode Island, and eastern Massachusetts. The highest amount recorded was 40 inches in Hamden, Connecticut, and Gorham, Maine received a record 35.5 inches. Over 700,000 people were left without power and travel in the region came to a complete standstill. On the afternoon of February 9, when the storm was pulling away from the Northeastern United States, a well defined eye was seen in the center. The eye feature was no longer there the next day and the storm quickly moved out to sea. The nor'easter later moved on to impact the United Kingdom, before finally dissipating on February 20. The storm killed 18 people.

See also


External links

  • Blizzard Video: Dec 9, 2005 (duration: 9m59sec)
  • Archived issues of (Magazine of the Northeast Sea Grant Programs), published until 1999.
  • Duxbury, Massachusetts April 2007 Nor'easter photos

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