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What's a Nor'easter?

...and What to Expect

A nor'easter is winter's most violent storm and usually happen anytime between October and April. They occur when the cold arctic air from the north combines with the moist air from the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic ocean off the east coast.

Forming strong areas of low pressure, the storm then either moves up the east coast into New England or out into the sea.

nor'easter storm

If the nor'easter storm moves up the east coast and the area of low pressure stays to the west of Massachusetts cities like Boston, Salem and Gloucester, precipitation will usually result in the form of rain. These kind of storms are known as on-shore forming.

If the low pressure stays slightly off the coast of Massachusetts, these cities may see a combination of freezing rain, sleet, and snow. These types of nor'easter storms are known as off-shore forming and are the ones that make the news as they cause traffic snarls, power outages, and intense waves as they crash into the beaches of coastal cities.

Snowfalls from a nor'easter storm can be anywhere from a few inches to feet...bad for driving but great for the ski slopes. However, the winds that accompany a nor'easter are nothing to sneeze at either. They can be very forceful and even exceed the wind speeds of hurricanes. Rotating in a counter-clockwise pattern, the wind direction comes from the northeast, giving the nor'easter its name.

The nor'easter storm can also become a blizzard when sustained winds reach at least 35 mph with freezing temperatures, visibilities reach 1/4 mile or less and the storm lasts at least 3 hours.

nor'easter - heavy snow

Over the years, there have been some notorious nor'easter storms that have written themselves into the history books. The 1991 Halloween nor'easter, dubbed the Perfect Storm caused damages across Massachusetts topping $100 million dollars and sunk the famous fishing boat, Andrea Gail that had sailed from Gloucester, MA.

The Blizzard of 1978 stranded travelers along Massachusetts' Route 128 and dumped so much snow, 3,500 cars were found abandoned and buried in the middle of the roads when cleanup efforts commenced. While these storms are at the very extreme and rare end of the spectrum, Massachusetts can expect anywhere from 2-5 'average' nor'easters per season. But not to worry, it will blow over and everything will return to normal before you know it.

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Caught in a Winter Storm

The best thing to do is to just stay inside and wait out the storm until it's over but if you're caught outside and on the road, that's a different story. There's been many times where I've driven home from work right at the peak of a nor'easter storm and didn't have much of a choice.

If you are caught driving during one of these storms, or any other winter storm for that matter, the visibility from the blowing wind and snow can be very low and the road can be icy and slick. There's a few winter driving tips to ensure you make it to your destination safely:


Prepare Your Car for Winter

First is to be prepared ahead of time; check the weather report the night before and know what you are getting yourself into. Do I really want to be driving in this weather? If at all possible, cancel or postpone plans you've made to a more travel friendly day. Next is to build a checklist of essentials to bring and how to winterize your car:

  • Check to make sure your spare tire is easily accessible and in good working order. It's one of those car components that are always overlooked until it becomes a necessity after getting a flat. Also make sure you have the tools necessary to change the tire, wheel wrench and tripod jack, as well as knowledge in changing a tire on your car.
  • A durable shovel, preferably a metal one. In addition to shoveling snow if necessary, I have also used it to put under the opposite diagonal tire when changing a flat to ensure the car won't roll. For instance, if the front driver side tire goes flat, I will position the metal part of the shovel upside down under the rear passenger door.
  • Rubber studded mats to use under your tires if your car gets stuck in snow and tow rope if someone is available to pull you out. Tire chains may be a little too cumbersome to put on, especially if you're already stuck and cannot move the car. Also carry a bag of salt to help the melting process. Cat litter works just as well too.
  • Jumper cables. If the battery is dead and you get a clicking sound when you turn the key, you will need a jump. Click here for a quick video showing the proper way to do it.
  • A bright and working flashlight is a necessity when changing a flat tire in the dark or looking at something under the car hood. Make sure to pack extra batteries as well.
  • Ice scraper and brush. If the temperature is very cold outside, you may also consider packing a bottle of de-icing fluid.

  • When changing a flat tire, you'll want other cars to see you as well. Putting on the hazards is first but you'll also want to have on hand a reflective triangle as well as reflective clothing.
  • In the very worst case scenario where you may need to wait a few hours for assistance to reach you, are out of cell phone range, or run out of gas you'll want to make sure you are dressed for the weather. Even if you're not wearing them, make sure to pack a warm down winter coat, wool blankets, hat, gloves, boots and thermal socks.
  • The night before you will need to travel in a winter storm, make sure your car is in good working order and previously checked by an automotive technician.

At the very least, check the air in your tires to make sure they are at the correct PSI as well as checking the tire tread to ensure they will grip the road.

Another thing to do is to fill up any car fluids to their optimal levels including windshield washer fluid and gasoline. I always keep a spare jug of fluid in my car truck just in case I run out.

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Winter Driving Tips

nor'easter - winter driving tips

The most important thing I can stress when driving in a winter storm is to drive slowly and defensively.

If there's ever a situation where you're unsure who has the right of way, let the other guy go first. If someone's looking to pass you, let them pass. Better safe than sorry, right?

Anyway, here's a few winter driving tips I've learned through the years whether it was through other's experiences or from learning the hard way:

  • First and most important is to drive slower than normal. Leave at least 3 times the space in front of you to stop and keep lights on at all times as visibility in storm will be lower.
  • When it comes time to brake, do so slowly. This is especially important in cars without ABS (anti-lock brakes) where slamming on the brakes can cause the car to spin out. If you do start skidding, ease off the brakes. Accelerating into turns can also cause spin outs.
  • When driving down a hill, put the car in a lower gear to keep traction. When stopping, pump the brakes if your car is not equipped with ABS. If it is, press the brakes slowly and do not pump the brakes.
  • In blowing heavy snow, turn the heat on the windshield defroster setting to its highest fan speed and leave it there. If you get hot, open the window a little bit. There's been plenty of times when I've driven in blowing snow and turned down the fan speed because I started getting warm. The water droplets on the windshield and wipers started icing up and it quickly became a visibility issue while the washer fluid I was using didn't do too much except create a slushy mess.
  • Take extra caution when driving behind and close to larger trucks including snow plows and sanding trucks. They will have lower visibility and may not see you. It's also best not to pass as the roads will not be any better ahead of them.

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