Millions of residents along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. started the new year of 2018 with the dubious pleasure of a visit from a record-breaking winter storm.

Fortunately, today’s modern forecasting and communications capabilities provided advanced warning of the approaching mix of snow and wind, but the severity still found many individuals and municipalities unprepared for the onslaught.

Just what generated this massive storm, also referred to as a “bomb cyclone” along with what may be new terms to most of the population – bombogenesis?

Bombogenesis is a term used by meteorologists to describe conditions where:

  • A cyclone in middle latitudes intensifies rapidly, dropping significantly in pressure within a 24-hour period.
  • Technically speaking, the drop must be at least 24 millibars in that period of time. Millibars are a measurement of atmospheric pressure. It’s this extreme drop (bomb) in pressure combined with the cyclogenesis of the storm’s formation that sparked the term bombogenesis.

January 2018’s east coast storm certainly falls into that category. What makes it stand out from others in recent years is how far south it impacted the country.

Close to a Perfect Storm

Even before this storm, New England and the eastern U.S. had already been subjected to one of the most bitter cold holiday seasons on record. But with this event, even Florida was hit with record low temperatures, and snow in areas where children had never seen the frozen precipitation before.

Even more than was anticipated by forecast models, the storm dropped tremendously in pressure and increased intensity remarkably as it traveled up the east coast. It took on a cyclonic shape around a central “eye”, just as a hurricane, evolving into a bomb cyclone that brought misery and damage to every state it visited:

  • Thunder snow in massive volumes (snowfall combined with thunder and lightning)
  • Damaging winds
  • Coastal flooding with icy waters
  • Power outages
  • Streets paralyzed by heavy snow and flooding
  • Icy and snow-covered conditions in areas that rarely see snow, including parts of Florida and Savannah, Georgia
  • Traffic tie-ups and a high number of accidents

In this particular storm, there was a perfect blend of timing and weather conditions that came together to produce the havoc wreaked by the winter hurricane:

  • Cyclonic flow sucking up warm, moist air from tropical areas as it moves up the coast
  • Cold arctic air from the northwest, combining with the moisture and opposing front to result in the extreme low atmospheric pressure and powerful wind currents
  • Already below-average cold temperatures on the east coast areas

Ed Kirby of Vox explains that when these conditions are present, pressure will drop very, very quickly, causing storms to intensify and spin in a counterclockwise winter cyclone disturbance.

Are Winter Cyclones New?

While this year’s winter cyclone that struck the eastern states indeed had a massive impact on the region, the phenomenon is not new in weather cycles. The 1993 “Superstorm” resulted in record snowfalls for much of the eastern U.S.

Bomb cyclones are more prevalent in regions such as the northwest and southwest Pacific oceans, as well as the south Atlantic. Yet they are also experienced inland, such as on the Great Lakes in the U.S. The “Big Storm” of 1913 was a winter cyclone on the lakes that resulted in the loss of 13 ships and 244 men.

Bombogenesis is not strictly a cold-weather phenomenon. Tropical examples also exist, such as Hurricane Charley in 2004. Descending on Florida as a category 4 hurricane, the National Weather Service records show that the atmospheric pressure dropped by 23 millibars in a mere 5 hours.

What Happened to Global Warming?

Nonbelievers in global warming tend to point to such events as winter hurricanes as proof that there is no global warming. In truth, over 97% of climate scientists worldwide are firm in their preponderance of evidence that the Earth’s climate is not only changing, but human activity is largely responsible.

But don’t call it global warming anymore. The evolving weather patterns and changing environment are more accurately referred to as climate change. Historic photographs compared to those taken today provide remarkable evidence that snow masses, glaciers, and polar icecaps are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Does this impact the incidence of winter cyclones? Quite possibly. Warming ocean temperatures – an element of climate change – contribute to the intensity of hurricanes.

National Geographic studies further emphasize how climate change that results in warmer Arctic temperatures can impact other areas with colder weather conditions. Accordingly, colder temperatures in lower latitudes could result in shorter growing seasons for agriculture, impacting yield and availability of products.

To remain responsible citizens of the Earth, our leaders and populace must each be accountable for taking action to reduce or eliminate climate change.