I’ve posted three times this year on historic snow storms of March and April. By the time May rolls in, it’s really tough to get a snowflake in southern New England. However, occasionally New England manages to find a way and outdid itself 40 years ago on May 9th.
A small low pressure system dropped down from Hudson’s Bay with a large high pressure system just behind. While the associated cold front pushed down to the Gulf of Mexico, the upper level trough became a cutoff low over southern New England Together, they managed to bring near freezing weather to where I lived in eastern Massachusetts. An offshore surface storm formed, intensified, and backed into New England bringing Atlantic moisture with it. Heavy snow aloft chilled the surface air and changed rain to heavy wet snow. That quickly overwhelmed the warm soil temperatures and brought the region some 8″ (20 cm) of snow on the ground. I measured 3″ (8 cm) of snow on the sides of utility poles.
More significantly, deciduous trees like maples had leafed out and the weight of the wet snow brought limbs and whole trees down, often on power lines. 600,000 customers lost power, some for a week. News anchor Shelby Scott at WBZ-TV begged people to feed the birds as the ground feeders couldn’t reach the ground until the snow melted.
While maps show little snow accumulation along the coast, I recall that even there they had tremendous tree damage. Higher elevations to the west, e.g. Worcester, the Berkshires, and the Catskills in New York had 1-2 feet (30-60 cm).
By some measures, this was a 200-300 year storm. “Unprecedented” was heard many times that week. This event, previous events, and subsequent events, fit in well with general handwringing then about an impending ice age. Magazines like Time, Newsweek, and Science News had significant reports citing the evidence of the cooling climate since the 1950s. While people who belittle these concerns point to there being few peer reviewed papers on the subject, climatology had only recently transformed from documenting climatic history to making hypotheses about future climate. People saw a very scary trend, but didn’t have a good culprit beyond aerosols caused by air pollution.
David Keeling at Scripps Institution of Oceanography published a paper the year before showing his record of CO2 levels at Mauna Loa. This established both the seasonal oscillation and a monotonic rise in annual CO2 levels. This had been hinted at in a 1960 paper, but now with 14 years of very clean data, his graph was sensational news and his paper helped shift scientists’ focus to CO2 levels as a climate driver, especially a few years later as the climate flipped back to a warming mode.
However, before that happened, our impending ice age was clear to everyone in the northeast. Severe cold earlier in the 1976/1977 winter brought a protracted freeze that shut down barge traffic on the Ohio River, froze Lake Erie early, and in January had set the conditions for a paralyzing blizzard in Buffalo. I wish I had written about it in January. This May storm added more fuel to the fire. Or snow to the ice chest. Spring did get back on track after this storm, but eight months later Boston would set, briefly, a new record for the greatest 24 hour snowfall. (Think about what that means!) I expect to write two or three posts about the winter of 1977/1978, as the worst was yet to come before the warming climate of the 1980s and 1990s took hold.