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Weather Focus

Blizzard of ’78: The worst of the storm caught many off guard

Forecasting has come a long way since the 1970s. More accurate weather models and advanced radar can now pinpoint timing and ferocity of storms.

Photos from the aftermath of the Blizzard of 1978.Globe Staff

The weather over the next several days looks quite tranquil, with a continued warming trend. As a matter of fact, temperatures by Saturday will be well into the 50s and there’s an outside chance we could tie the record of 60 degrees set just last year.

That’s a far cry from early February 1978, when well over 2 feet of snow fell across New England from a blizzard that easily clocked hurricane-force winds. When all was said and done, 99 people were dead — including 73 in Massachusetts — and hundreds more injured.

The average age in Massachusetts is 40 and so it’s likely that many of you reading this don’t even remember the Blizzard of ‘78 when it struck on Feb. 6-7 nearly five decades ago, or weren’t even born yet. Perhaps you heard about it from your parents or grandparents. And while the meteorology of it is certainly textbook worthy, thinking back to that powerful storm system, which took place when I was in junior high, still brings me a pang of excitement.

Boston received a record 27.1 inches of snow from the blizzard. I grew up in Portland, Maine, and there was anywhere from 10 to 20 inches of snow across Southern Maine during the blizzard, with Portland officially only receiving 13.1 inches. An interesting side note is that for the month of February that year, there was actually less snow than the average in that part of Southern Maine.

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It might be hard to imagine the impact of that mighty storm today, where schools are canceled for a few inches of snow and any mention of it becomes a headline.

Forecasting accuracy has accelerated in the 46 years since then. In the 1970s, private forecasters had limited experience with weather models. The LFM or limited fine-mesh model, an early precursor to the NAM (the North American Mesoscale Forecast System) and the GFS (Global Forecast System) models we use today, was basically all meteorologists had to use.

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The LFM model actually did a particularly good job at predicting the blizzard, but having confidence in those models was precarious. Most forecasters felt that the bulk of the snow would come later in the evening on Feb. 6, but the snow began hours earlier as workers poured out of office buildings and started to head home. As snowfall rates crept up — to 1 and 2 inches and even 3 inches an hour during the storm — cars got stuck, which is how we ended up with pictures of abandoned vehicles on many major roadways.

Although certainly not impossible, it’s unlikely that something like that could happen today. In 1978, access to weather radar was limited. If you were in a TV weather office in those days you got a radar update every 30 minutes on a difax machine. You waited minutes for each page to print, hung up the wet paper to dry and evaluated precipitation information already old when you received it.

Remember, our TV stations didn’t have their own Doppler radars yet. That would be over a decade away. In 1981, a station in Oklahoma would be the first to get their own and the race to have private dopplers began.

For the public in 1978, you either watched local TV news or you listened to the radio for your weather information. There was no Weather Channel, no apps, and newspapers only had a little blurb about the weather with a few maps. Forecasts in places like The Boston Globe had been given to editors the night before in order to make print. This meant that the information was often old so when you read the morning newspaper, it was based on data from perhaps 12 hours ago. Sometimes it made no difference, but for the Blizzard of ‘78, it did.

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An aerial view of the damage on Peggotty Beach in Scuitate on Feb. 8, 1978, following the Blizzard of 78. Bill Brett/Globe Staff

The public wasn’t used to getting highly accurate forecasts back then, and even a forecast predicting such a storm would have been met with lots of skepticism.

The Blizzard of ’78 was devastating for the New England coastline. Four high tide cycles were impacted by this fierce storm, which stalled off the coast and actually did a loop south of Nantucket. More typical nor’easters might have one or two tide cycles that are affected by the strong northeasterly winds. With the slow movement of the Blizzard of ‘78, the water wasn’t able to leave the shoreline between tides and so the successive tides brought more water further inland. When you add in the incredible wave action from the storm, this was a recipe for all of the devastating coastal damage we saw.

That high tide record from the blizzard — a water level of 15.10 feet recorded in Boston — would stand in Boston until January 2018. In fact, in Portland, Maine, the high tide record from 1978 just fell last month.

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It would take decades for the blizzard’s record-breaking snowfall to be outdone. The President’s Day storm of 2003 surpassed Boston’s record for the most amount of snow from a single storm, eclipsing the snowfall from the Blizzard of 1978 by just half an inch (27.6 inches of snow was measured overall).

Even so, for many, the combination of wind, cold, snow, and the incredible storm surge makes the Blizzard of ‘78 storm a lifetime memory.