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What is a Nor'easter?


Nor'easters usually bring massive amounts of precipitation, high winds, large waves, and marginal storm surge to coastal areas
Nor'easters usually bring massive amounts of precipitation, high winds, large waves, and marginal storm surge to coastal areas

Staff writers

November 7, 2012 — "Nor'easter" -- it's a term we don't often hear about, but in the wake of super storm Sandy has been one that's been dominating the headlines. So, what is a Nor'easter and how does it differ from any other storm? Allow us to clarify.

Fall and winter Nor'easters can sometimes cause blizzard conditions, resulting in drastically reduced visibility on the roads
Fall and winter Nor'easters can sometimes cause blizzard conditions, resulting in drastically reduced visibility on the roads

A Nor'easter is a relatively strong coastal storm with three ingredients.

"Essentially you need cold clashing with warm, then you need a good source of moisture, and finally a strong jet stream disturbance, an upper level disturbance to set everything in motion," says Meteorologist Chris Scott at The Weather Network.

So, why are Nor'easters more common along the Atlantic coast of Canada and the United States? Scott says it's because they encompass the perfect breading grounds for such to occur.

"You've got the Gulf Stream sitting right there so that supplies the heat and the moisture. You bring in cold Arctic air across the continent, that's the air mass clash, and all we have to do is add in a jet stream disturbance, and that will happen when the jet stream chugs up from the U.S.," says Scott.

What are the characteristics?

Nor'easters can cause severe coastal flooding, coastal erosion, hurricane force wind or blizzard conditions. Depending on the time of year, heavy rain and snow will often accompany those circumstances.

When do they occur?

Nor'easters typically happen between September through May. The more intense ones usually occur in the fall or winter time. However, spring Nor'easters are not to be underestimated, as they are known to bring devastating winds.

Nor'easter, Hurricane, Blizzard...What's the difference?

Nor'easters and hurricanes are completely different because they derive their energy from completely different sources.

Our hurricanes get their energy from the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and that latent heat release is what drives the engine. Once a hurricane comes on land it loses its energy.

A Nor'easter gets its energy from the differences between hot and cold. A blizzard will come from a strong Nor'easter, so in some cases they can be one in the same -- blinding snow and wind, winds blowing 55-65 km/h and devastating cold -- hence why the strongest Nor'easters typically happen in fall and winter when you have that dynamic contrast in temperatures.

The key is, when you hear the word Nor'easter, prepare for some stormy weather ahead.

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