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Nor'easters: The Winter Weather Monster

UPDATED January 25, 2015

By WeatherBug Meteorologist, Andrew Rosenthal

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Along the Eastern Seaboard, there is one event that can drive children into snow-day euphoria and adults into a travel-impaired panic: the Nor`easter!

While a nor`easter is technically just a low-pressure system, it is really much, much more. Nor`easters typically occur from November through March, bringing heavy rain, significant snowfall, and blustery winds across the Eastern seaboard, from the Carolinas to Maine.

The nor`easter is most often compared to a hurricane due to the exceptionally strong wind and heavy precipitation that occurs with it. Since a typical winter brings several of these storms along the East Coast, many television meteorologists go so far as to follow the hurricane`s example, giving names to storm to differentiate between nor`easters.

Unlike hurricanes, which form over the ocean, most nor`easters have their origin over land. A nor`easter generally forms during a cold outbreak in the Deep South, when a weak storm crossing the Appalachians meets Gulf Stream-fed warm, moist air just off the Southeast Coast.

The storm undergoes rapid strengthening, an event known to meteorologists as "bombing," drawing in even more moisture into the storm. This dense moisture rotates around the low into the colder air northwest of the system, where clouds and precipitation develop.

As the storm gathers strength along the East Coast, winds rotate in a counter-clockwise direction, generating a northeast wind around the north side of the storm.

The origin of the name nor`easter comes from this wind direction. Ancient sailing language referred to storms by the direction from which the winds came. Thus, a storm with northeasterly winds would be called a "northeaster." Over time, British sailing captains shortened "northeaster" to "nor`easter" to save writing.

Generally, the inland areas remain below freezing, allowing any precipitation that develops to fall as snow. However, with ocean temperatures warmer than the land, enough warm air can move onto the immediate coast to change the snow to ice or rain.

A nor`easter typically lasts 24 to 36 hours, and can leave behind one-to-two feet of snow. Major cities across the Northeast can come to a standstill as roads and highways become impassable.

As if the snow alone wasn`t bad enough, hurricane-force wind gusts can knock out power, cause significant damage, and batter the Atlantic seaboard with erosion-causing waves.

Nor`easters are not limited to the wintertime months. A spring or fall nor`easter can be just as bad, bringing cold temperatures and flooding rains to the area. While nor`easters can wreak true havoc, they can also create a winter lover`s paradise.

Be sure to keep your WeatherBug active to receive the latest on any possible developing nor`easters this winter. Get the latest updates anywhere on Twitter at WeatherBug WeatherBuzz.

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