By Jim Marquardt
According to Mark Twain, “Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it.” In fact, last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine ran an article about weather that quoted a specialist who headed the National Hurricane Center during Katrina. He said, “Uncertainty is the fundamental component of weather prediction.” One supercomputer used for atmospheric research can make 77 trillion calculations each second, yet a National Weather Service director admitted “there are still things that computers can’t do.” Though we’re tempted to say “Duh!” to both statements, the complex science of weather prediction actually has gotten a lot better.
Weather variations on the East End give us plenty to talk about, below freezing in winter and stifling hot in summer. Here’s a quick rundown of the worst storms to hit Long Island. You always start with the Great New England Hurricane of September 21, 1938, which blew the steeple off the Old Whalers Church. No one prepared for it because a Category 3 storm hadn’t come ashore in over 100 years. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, gusts reached 186 mph and the ocean surge was 17 feet. I watched in awe from a ground floor apartment in Rockaway Beach as ocean waves broke over the boardwalk and poured down the street to Jamaica Bay.
Not many years later, the Great Atlantic Hurricane (they didn’t start naming them until 1953) came ashore between Southampton and Westhampton and knocked out power for ten days. Hurricane Donna in 1960 and Gloria in 1985 were Category 2 storms, meaning sustained winds of 96 to 110 mph. Bob crossed Montauk on August 19, 1991, with winds of 101 mph, ripping up bulkheads along Little Peconic Bay in Noyac.
According to an earlier NY Times article, experts claim the Saffir-Simpson scale that ranks storms in “categories” can be misleading to shore-side residents because it is based on the power of the wind, and doesn’t include ocean surge. In response, NOAA says that surge varies widely depending on coastal conditions, and recommends explicit warnings from the National Weather Service to support decision-making at local levels. Helping with regional data is Bridgehampton’s 100-year old Richard Hendrickson, a local weather observer for the NWS for 80 years.
Hurricane season officially runs from June 1st to November 30th and peaks in early September — like right now! Hurricanes aren’t the only worry for Eastern Long Island. Every few years an intense storm, usually a nor’easter, brings nearly as much wind, rain and tide. The “Halloween Storm” of October 31, 1991, hit Long Island with 60 mph winds and waves so high they were detected by Cornell’s seismograph in Ithaca, New York. We owe that fact to Norm Dvoskin writing in a 1992 issue of the Long Island Historical Journal.
The first two weeks of February bring the most snow, according to the American Meteorological Society (AMS). The largest storm in New York City history dumped 26.9 inches of snow on February 11, 2006. The East End’s proximity to the ocean usually tempers snowstorm effects, changing precipitation to rain and sleet. But that wasn’t rain we shoveled during the hard winter of 2010-2011. Dvoskin reported historic snowstorms including one in 1857 when the Sag Harbor Corrector, forerunner of the Express, didn’t get its shipment of newsprint and had to put out an issue on brown paper. The “Blizzard of 88” is the benchmark for winter storms, bringing powerful winds, bitter cold and 33 inches of snow to Patchogue. That would trump the 2006 storm, but apparently the weather gurus consider 1888 ancient history. More recently, the snowiest single month was February 2010 with a 36.9-inch accumulation, and the 95-96 season which piled up 75.6 inches.
In general the North Shore gets the most snow on Long Island, mainly between Pt. Washington and Pt. Jefferson. The least amount falls along the South Shore, especially the barrier islands. Many variables account for the differences. The ocean has a modifying effect, except for nor’easters. The East End only gets more snow when the storm track is well offshore. New York City’s “heat island” reduces snow on that end. A small “lake effect” from Long Island Sound and an abrupt change in elevation, though modest, contribute to the snowier North Shore.
There’s good news for the coming winter, unless you run a ski resort. NOAA predicts above normal temperatures on Long Island and New England, though it will be wet and stormy. Florida could feel chillier temperatures so maybe you should reconsider that expensive rental in Boca Raton.