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Blizzard of ‘78 likely to remain the king of February blizzards, weather expert says

The Blizzard of ‘78 loitered off the coast of New England for some 36 hours, giving it the chance to batter the coast for far longer than the current storm is expected to do. That powerful February storm left behind more than 30 inches of snow across the region, a volume the latest blizzard is not expected to match.

Those are two reasons that National Weather Service meteorologist and weather historian Paul J. Kocin expects the Blizzard of 2013 to most likely pale in comparison to the epic ‘78 storm.

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“It’s that combination of coastal flooding, enormous high tides, hurricane force winds, and the driving snow that keeps that storm as sort of Number Uno,’’ Kocin said of the ‘78 blizzard.

Another is the timing of the ‘78 storm – it arrived on a weekday -- and the dramatic improvement in weather forecasting since Feb. 6, 1978, when a skeptical public failed to closely heed weather service warnings, leading to the hundreds of people being trapped on major and minor highways and roads.

“Our tools have changed tremendously,’’ said Kocin, who is the author, along with NWS director Louis W. Uccellini, of the book, “Northeast Snowstorms.” “Back in 1978, forecasts were not that believable. Now we have much better tools.’’

Kocin said the Boston area had already set a snowfall record in late January 1978. But the accumulated snow from that storm had significantly melted -- in metrological terms – by Feb. 6, when the infamous blizzard got underway. Kocin said that some January snow obviously remained, but the record snowfall is unique to the February ‘78 storm.

In 1978, the storm hammered the region through four full tide cycles, while Friday’s storm is expected to be volatile for just two high tides – during the evening and Saturday morning.

“That could be huge,’’ Kocin said. “How long the storm persists is really important.’’

Then there’s the aftermath. In 1978, the weather remained cold, slowing the digging-out process. But temperatures next week are expected to hit the high 40s for several days, accelerating the melting.

“The weather is going to warm up fairly quickly,’’ Kocin said. “The clean-up ultimately makes a difference in how these storms are viewed.’’

According to Kocin’s research, the Blizzard of ‘78 killed 99 people in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, destroyed 2,000 homes, forced more than 10,00 people into warming shelters, and forced some 3,500 drivers to abandon their vehicles on Route 128.

“That’s kind of an hard order to fill, even with this storm,’’ Kocin said.

Because of improved forecasting, Governor Deval Patrick was able to take steps to avoid the highway mess. On Friday, he ordered drivers off the roads by 4 p.m.

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com.
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