Comparing 1978 and 2013

Growing up as a weather-obsessed child I always regretted not being a little bit older so I could have been alive for the 1978 blizzard. Being a once-in-a-lifetime event it was certainly possible I would never be able to see a storm like it. Just days after the 35th anniversary of the 1978 blizzard Connecticut was clobbered by the worst blizzard since ’78.

The easiest way to quantify a snowstorm is by the amount of snow that falls. There’s no question the Blizzard of 2013 dropped the most snow across a large portion of the state since 1888. Looking through Northeast Snowstorms from Kocin-Uccellini there was no storm since 1888 that came close! The state record 24 hour snowfall was likely broken in several towns – the National Weather Service is investigating this now.

WVIT Blizzard 2013 Totals

Here’s a look at the official snowfall measurements from the NWS cooperative observers.

Blizzard of 2013

  • Bridgeport (Success Hill) – 30.0″
  • Norwich – 24.0″
  • Staffordville – 31.4″
  • Bakersville (New Hartford) – 28.0″
  • Norfolk – 17.2″

Blizzard of 1978

  • Brooklyn – 21.0″
  • Haddam – 20.0″
  • Coventry – 18.0″
  • Danbury – 20.0″
  • Groton – 17.2″
  • Mansfield – 24.0″
  • Middletown – 18.5″
  • Hamden 23.8″
  • Norfolk – 24.0″
  • Washington – 18.0″
  • Stamford – 15.0″
  • Storrs – 22.0″
  • Thompson – 24.0″
  • Woodbury – 19.0″
  • Windsor Locks (BDL) – 16.9″
  • New Britain – 21.5″

The first thing that jumps out at you is how few cooperative observers we have in 2013 reporting snowfall as compared to 1978. It’s a shame. The second thing is that there’s no question the snowfall in 2013 was more impressive than 1978. In fact, based on snowfall alone, the ’78 storm doesn’t seems to be much worse than other storms like January 2011, January 1996, Februrary 1983, etc., right?

Blizzard of 2013 / Courtesy: Chad Lyons in Branford
Blizzard of 2013 / Courtesy: Chad Lyons in Branford

It was the wind that truly set 1978 apart from the pack. The 17″-24″ of snow in 1978 (and up to 30″ in far eastern Connecticut) was whipped by winds that gusted to near hurricane force.

This is how John Bagioni who owns Fax Alert Weather Service recalls the 1978 blizzard. John is one of the best meteorologists in the state!

The 78 storm had ferocious winds that were much strong than this storm. Widespread winds in the 50 to 70 mph range were common with some 80+ winds… At Wolcott High School (elevation 700+) where I was working and running a CT Weather Forecasting class, had a Maximum Gust Master anemometer with a battery back-up… A week later when we got back, peak wind gusts was 83 mph!!! I was just starting to consult with a few towns and DPW back in 78. The superintendent came over the weather office at 7 AM (Monday); we saw the amazing obs starting to show up to our southwest; the students got off the buses at about 7:15 and were put right back on by 7:30 to head home… We just shut it down right then and there… The winds caused extreme drifting in the 78 blizzard. Drifts to 5 to 10 feet were common with much higher drifts than 10 feet noted. At Wolcott High School a drift almost made it to roof level and had to be knocked down to keep students from climbing up it on getting on the roof days later once it had hardened!!!

The 78 storm followed shortly after a terribly forecasting bust in late January. A big storm was expected and it was almost a total fail and the public was disgusted with the inaccuracy of the forecasting. When the blizzard was predicted (and it was well predicted, in fact the old Travelers Weather Service based in Hartford indicated Sunday in their forecast that where you were late Monday afternoon is where you would likely be for several days! The old LFM model nailed the storm), many did not believe the forecast, and did not follow the advice about getting to a safe location by early to mid afternoon. By mid/late afternoon travel was almost impossible and by late afternoon hundreds were stranded and it continued to spiral out of control; few folks had 4 wheel drive vehicles back then. Even though we had less snow, the combination of extreme wind, unbelievable drifting, the lack of public awareness made for a crippling storm… Travel band lasted days and work and/or schools were shutdown anywhere from 3 to 5 days. Many towns had to bring pay loaders in to open up streets; also I believe National Guard to a much greater degree than today was needed as well. I remember night after night of listening to pay loaders working on all the neighborhood streets (I was living in Bristol then). While very disruptive, in my experience, the 78 storm was more crippling and life-threatening, primarily due to the powerful surface winds.

The surface observations show the strength of the wind during the height of the 1978 storm. In Bridgeport the winds were sustained at 41 m.p.h. with gusts to 55 m.p.h. at the storm’s peak at 5 p.m. In fact winds gusted above 50 m.p.h. occasionally between 4 p.m. and 3 a.m. the following morning. Bridgeport also had 6 straight hours of winds gusting >35 m.p.h. with visibility <1/4 mile (either 1/8SM or 1/16 SM) between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. on February 6th.

In Groton the 1978 blizzard produced a sustained wind of 46 m.p.h. with a gust to 69 m.p.h. at 3:06 p.m.! That’s a ferocious wind for a blizzard in Connecticut. The visibility at the time of that observation was 0.1 miles.

In Hartford winds gusted to 52 m.p.h. (sustained at 34 m.p.h.) at 8:06 p.m. on February 6, 1978 with a visibility of 0.1 mile. Brainard had gusts >35 m.p.h. and <1/4 mile visibility for 4 straight hours.

Blizzard of 2013 / Courtesy: Mike in Portland
Blizzard of 2013 / Courtesy: Mike in Portland

Comparing ’78 to ’13 is almost an apples to oranges type of comparison. 2013 had more snow and 1978 had more wind. ’78 occurred on a Monday and many people left for work not thinking the storm would be as bad as forecast. Everyone knew 2013 would be a monster and it peaked Friday night when most people were hunkered down at home. More people have 4 wheel drive now than they did 35 years ago. All of those things make the comparison tough. Snow is just one piece of the puzzle – societal impact is by far more important when judging where a storm will fall in an historical context.

For example, do you remember the February 2006 snowstorm? I do but I’m sure many don’t. People certainly won’t be talking about it 20 years from now even though it dropped 20″-30″ of snow and is the largest snowstorm on record  up at Windsor Locks. It was a lame storm, though. Winds were dead calm, it struck on a Sunday morning, and it was total fluff. You could shovel your car out in a few minutes without breaking a sweat. Within hours the snow was compacting and sublimating making it a rather pedestrian storm for a record breaker at BDL.

The Blizzard of 2013, on the other hand, contained an incredible amount of “liquid” for a storm that dropped 30″ of snow.  This wasn’t fluff! 3.00″ to 4.00″ of liquid was common in the area hardest hit. A period of sleet/graupel also fell which made moving this stuff next to impossible.

This snowstorm has undoubtedly joined the pantheon of historic Connecticut snowstorms that people will talk about for generations to come. The blizzard of 1888, the blizzard of ’78, the October Snowstorm of 2011, and The blizzard of 2013 are the top 4 (since the late 1800s) without a doubt in my mind.