Guest post by Ric Werme
This week marks the 50th anniversary of a destructive nor’easter named “The Great Atlantic Storm of 1962” by the NWS and just “The Ash Wednesday Storm” by others. I lived in Ohio at the time, but my grandparents owned a summer house on Long Beach Island, a barrier island in New Jersey that faces the Atlantic Ocean. So, it’s a good time to talk about nor’easters in general and one little spot in particular.
To a geologist, a barrier island is an ephemeral structure. They exist thanks to waves and tide bringing sand onto a sand bar creating a barrier between ocean and bay. Onshore winds blow sand toward the bay side and also build up dunes above the beach. Big storms erode both the beach and dunes. Eventually the island moves towards the land, and offshore erosion and rivers brings sand back to the ocean and the process repeats. There are various other interesting sand movements, e.g. “littoral drift,” the transport of sand next to the beach, but we’re going to stick mainly to weather.
Barrier island are great places to spend the summer, so people build houses there and generally expect the houses to remain in place. This strategy works for a while, and summer trips to Harvey Cedars remain among my most cherished childhood memories. (Several locations on Long Beach Island have odd names, e.g. Ship Bottom and Loveladies.)
Houses on the ocean side of the island can remain for decades, especially if various attempts are made by homeowners, government, or the Army Corp of Engineers to stabilize or replenish the beach and adjacent sand dunes. However, coastal storms can make permanent changes overnight, even to the strongest defenses people have erected. Some of the most memorable storms along the Atlantic coast have been hurricanes, those of 1938, 1944, Carol and four others in the 1950s remain in living memory in New England and mid-Atlantic. Except for the storms in the 1950s, hurricanes are relatively rare and not our focus today.
Northeasters …… or nor’easters, or coastal extratropical storms, form from the combination of cold air from Canada meeting with warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico or the subtropical Atlantic. Whereas a hurricane is powered by the temperature difference between sea level and the upper troposphere, nor’easters are powered by the temperature difference of adjacent air masses. Both are heat engines and use energy released as water vapor condenses. Hurricanes can form almost anywhere there is warm sea water and other triggers, nor’easters tend to form (or reform) on the southeastern coast and follow the coast into the Canadian Maritime provinces.
Extratropical storms are broader than most hurricanes. In hurricanes, concern focuses on where the eye is, as the wind is strongest just to the west of the eye. In nor’easters, the wind field is much broader. South of the storm center is generally warm air, which is blown up and over cold air to the north. That uplift produces the rain and snow, and the greatest storminess is north of the low. The ground level wind there blows from the northeast, hence the name.
Inland areas look to a rain/snow line – if Boston is getting snow, Concord NH may be too far away from the storm to have a heavy snowfall. If Boston gets rain, Concord may get a foot (30 cm) of snow. After the storm, a high pressure system often moves down and the pressure gradient between it and the departing storm gives us strong northwest winds for a day or two.
If conditions are just right, an offshore storm will intensify rapidly. After people started saying the storm will “bomb out,” the NWS added “bombogenesis” to the meteorological lexicon. (Sadly, no one has come up with a better name.) If this happens when there is a high pressure system blocking the path, the storm stalls, and what had started out as an ordinary nor’easter becomes a historic event.
The “Great Atlantic Storm of 1962”
That’s what happened fifty years ago – the storm stalled off New Jersey. These storms aren’t measured by hours, but by high tides. Worse, it was near a “Proxigean High Tide” when the new moon occurs when the Moon is at a closer than usual perigee. The storm brought hurricane force winds and a protracted assault on beach and dunes. Inland it brought snow as far south as Alabama and freezing temperatures to Florida. Again, not our focus.
Harvey Cedars was about to bear the brunt of the storm:
My grandparent’s house was on 80th street and was pushed over onto the neighboring building. 259 other buildings in Harvey Cedars were wrecked. The Ship’s Wheel (the main source of beach toys, ice cream, and Pez candy) was washed into the bay. The larger homes in Loveladies were pretty much all destroyed. Some of the accounts of people’s struggles to survive in the cold and dark were amazing. (The police chief from a town to the south had a heart attack. It was impossible to get him to a hospital, and I believe he did not survive.)
Over a stretch of about 600 miles, the wind pushed the water ahead of it in long swells that rose 30 feet high in the open ocean. By the time these reached the shore they were traveling at freight train speed. As the waves reached the beaches, they mounted to the height of a three- or four-story building. (Records are incomplete because the storm destroyed the recording devices on Atlantic City’s Steel Pier.) The Jersey Shore had never seen anything like it and Harvey Cedars didn’t stand a chance.
Mayor Thomas kept waiting for the wind to shift. “It always does,” he said. “As soon as it backs around to the northwest, everyone starts to breath easier.” Nobody in Harvey Cedars breathed easily for three days and six high tides. The high tide early Tuesday morning took out the dunes and undercut bulkheads. The high tide that night wiped out the beach. The high tide Wednesday morning floated houses off their foundations, broke roads and dug new inlets across town. The high tide Wednesday night pushed the debris into whatever structures were still standing. The high tide Thursday morning was remarked on because it wasn’t quite as high as the high tide the night before. By Thursday night the storm had begun moving out, but the last high tide laid in yet more water which washed through the new inlets, one at 79th Street and the other at Bergen Avenue.
Friday morning was clear and sunny. Everything was calm and sunny. Except there were no dunes, little beach and few houses. Near Atlantic Avenue, a wave that broke gently on the strand washed westward over the level, destroyed roadbed, to the bay, with nothing to block its progress. When it was over what was left of Harvey Cedars looked like a war zone.
Months later the breaches were filled in, the boulevard that runs the length of the island was repaired. Eventually my uncle built a house on stilts that was an okay house, but just wasn’t worth naming. (The old house was named Driftwood because it had been relocated by hurricanes in the past. I don’t think my grandparents were pulling my leg….) New houses were built attached to deep pilings which has helped in subsequent storms.
The Ship’s Wheel II was built, and development resumed, even accelerated, the boulevard was widened and stop lights added. Sadly, LBI is not the place I remembered. My uncle eventually sold the property, but cherished memories remain.
The further north along the Atlantic coast you go, the more important nor’easters become in terms of damage. The Gulf Stream peels away from the US coast off on North Carolina, and that makes for a good dividing line. North of there hurricanes have trouble maintaining their strength, and in New England, the most damaging hurricanes on the coast are also the fastest movers that haven’t had the chance to weaken much. They are quite rare, so over time it’s really the nor’easters that cause the most damage.
One remarkable thing about the current active hurricane period that started in 1995 is that New England hasn’t had a repeat of the big storms in the previous period that I mentioned above. Hurricane Irene had a chance, but much of its winds lifted off the ground and wind damage was much less than expected (rain and flooding, the hallmark of inland hurricane damage, was extensive).
So instead of memorable hurricanes, we note nor’easters like the Blizzard of 1978 which was the biggest storm I’ve experienced in New England, the Perfect Storm in 1991, the 1993 Storm of the Century, and the April Fools’ Day Blizzard of 1997. The 1993 storm’s long track and wide reach impacted some 100,000,000 people, and killed at least 243 of them – “a mortality over three times the total from Category 4 hurricanes Andrew (1992) and Hugo (1989), even though these two storms struck near large centers of coastal population.”
The next big coastal storm
I don’t know if it will be hurricane or nor’easter, I don’t know if it will be this year or the next. I do know it’s going to happen, and given the development over the last 50 years on Long Beach Island and elsewhere, I know the damage will be incredible. With luck there won’t be another storm this big for another 50 years.
http://www.southjerseynews.com/shore/m030402a.htm: A 2002 retrospective look at the Ash Wednesday storm on Long Beach Island.
http://lbi.net/rlw/northeas.asp: Another article, titled Really Lousy Weather. It has a couple photos from during the storm. One that didn’t make the article shows a wave breaking on a house two blocks from my grandparent’s house.
This is a copy of an 8 mm film made on Long Beach Island after the 1962 storm after the breaches were filled in and the main road reopened. I used a frame of the film for the lead image.
Morphological Impacts of the March 1962 Storm on Barrier Islands of the Middle Atlantic States is a report from the Army Corp of Engineers on the storm. The site includes photos or the aftermath on Long Beach Island.
http://climate.virginia.edu/vca/vca211.html: This dates back to when Pat Michaels was the Virginia State Climatologist. Virginia was also clobbered by this storm. The link starts with a good description of cyclones (extratropical storms), then has brief accounts of the 1962 and 1993 storms including the mortality quote used above. The images that should go with the story are unavailable at present.
http://coastlinesproject.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/the-ash-wednesday-storm-1962/: This excerpt from the book Just Seconds From the Ocean has a good description of barrier island movement that is quite different (and possibly better) than mine. It also has a warmist slant, but notes the impact of a 1980 prediction of catastrophic sea level rise by Stephen Schneider that was retracted nine years later.
Postscript – Barnegat Light
One structure that survived the storm was, and is Barnegat Light at the north end of the Island. It is no longer in service as a warning signal, but is now a state park, well worth the visit, and no article about Long Beach Island is complete without a reference to it.