Winter Storm Stella Will Be One of the Biggest Blizzards on Record
Meteorologists are running out of words to describe the late-season snowstorm expected to bring more than a foot of snow and winds stronger than a tropical storm.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with new forecast information.
It’s been a tough winter for snow lovers. From Chicago to New England, February was actually hot in many parts of country. Daffodils and flowering trees have been blooming for weeks. So far in 2017, it’s been in the 60s or 70s as often as it’s snowed in New York City.
That’s all about to change this week.
One of the biggest March snowstorms on record appears poised to strike the East Coast on Monday night, packing strong winds and snow drifts measured in feet. It’s as if Mother Nature decided to make up for lost time and pack an entire season’s worth of winter into a single day.
A blizzard warning is now in effect for a large swath of the Northeast from Philadelphia to Portland, Maine, including New York City — meaning white-out conditions and tropical-storm-force winds are likely. A relatively sharp cutoff between snow and slush should keep the biggest snow totals away from Washington, D.C. and Boston, but elsewhere, totals will rack up to 1 or 2 feet. The latest National Weather Service forecasts show a wide section of the Northeast, from Maryland to Maine, on tap for more than a foot of snow. Snowflakes should start Monday evening around Washington, D.C. and reach their peak early morning on Tuesday in New York City before tapering off by Tuesday evening across New England. The storm will be a relatively fast-mover, with most of its energy concentrated into a period of about nine hours of heavy snow and strong winds at each location.
Besides heavy snow and strong winds gusting to nearly hurricane-force in parts of Massachusetts, the storm may bring at least moderate coastal flooding to parts of the New Jersey shore. The result will be a snow day for sure on Tuesday with schools and workplaces closed—the National Weather Service is warning that “several roads may become impassable” and those that travel should bring along a “winter survival kit.” NYC schools will be closed; the governor of Connecticut has issued a statewide travel ban. With leaves already out due to the early spring, there’s also a risk of widespread power outages. An experimental winter storm severity index used by the National Weather Service maxes out the scale:
While the effects on land may be astounding for at least a short while—words like paralyzing and crippling are being used to describe it—meteorologists are also viewing the storm as eye candy and refer to its weather maps as “art.”
From a weather nerd-out standpoint, the storm is close to perfection. The primary ingredients—a cold pulse from the Great Lakes and a low-pressure system forming off the Carolinas—will pull in subtropical moisture from a record-warm Gulf Stream right offshore. The storm will rapidly strengthen—in the process becoming a meteorological “bomb” (a technical term for rapidly strengthening low-pressure centers)—and travel over the sweet spot to maximize snowfall for New York City and New England. That’s forced meteorologists to add new colors to their weather maps, and marvel at an “absolute crusher” that will be “puking snow.” An objective pattern-matching algorithm has compared this storm to some of the all-time strongest, too, including the Valentine’s Day 2007 blizzard and 1993’s “Storm of the Century.”
If you’re wondering, “but, it’s March—how is this happening?”—that’s a good question. If the current forecast—which was boosted early Monday morning by the National Weather Service—pans out, the storm will rank as the second-biggest March snowstorm in New York City history (records go back to 1869). Two studies published last year argue that climate change may be making the ingredients for big East Coast snowstorms more likely, and the evidence is starting to mount: Including this storm, eight of the 10 biggest snowstorms in New York City have occurred since 1996. High-resolution weather models continue to insist that most of this storm’s snowfall will come during just a few hours via an intense band with snowfall rates of up to 5 inches per hour—near the upper limit of what is physically possible along the East Coast.
A bit of uncertainty remains—especially for Washington, D.C. and Boston—where warmer air could mix in and convert snow into sleet or slush before it hits the ground. But for many parts of the Northeast, the storm is on track to be one for the record books.