A Blizzard by Moonlight

A Blizzard by Moonlight

A massive winter storm system pummeled the eastern United States in late January 2016, with two low-pressure systems merging into a potent nor’easter that dropped heavy snow from Virginia to New England. By late afternoon on January 23, snowfall totals were approaching records in several states, and hurricane-force winds were battering the coastlines and leading to serious flooding. The storm was expected to continue through the morning of January 24.

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite acquired this image of the storm system at 2:15 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (07:15 Universal Time) on January 23, 2016. It was composed through the use of the VIIRS “day-night band,” which detects faint light signals such as city lights, moonlight, airglow, and auroras. In the image, the clouds are lit from above by the nearly full Moon and from below by the lights of the heavily populated East Coast. The city lights are blurred in places by cloud cover.

Jeff Halverson, a University of Maryland meteorologist, summarized the storm system in The Washington Post:

Combine a very energetic jet stream disturbance with warm, Gulf Stream water, a deep sub-freezing air layer, and tropical moisture, and what you get is an East Coast snowstorm for the record books. The storm is called a nor’easter, or coastal low—a wintertime breed of mid-latitude cyclone powered by contrasting air temperatures. The Arctic air mass that recently invaded the mid-Atlantic, combined with an unseasonably warm Gulf Stream just offshore, will provide the necessary temperature contrast.

Snow totals have topped 30 inches (76 centimeters) in at least four states, and at least 12 inches (30 centimeters) have been recorded at locations in eight states, with many more hours left to the storm. Snowfall rates reached as high as three inches per hour, and blizzard warnings were in effect from Virginia to Massachusetts through January 24. As of 2:30 p.m. EST on January 23, the National Weather Service reported snow totals of 40 inches (101 cm) in Glengary, West Virginia, 33 inches (84 cm) in Frederick, Maryland, 23.5 inches (60 cm) at Dulles Airport 23.5 inches, and 16.2 inches (41.1 cm) at the National Zoo in Washington.

Locations closer to the coast, such as Norfolk, Virginia, saw just one to two inches of snowfall, but dealt with wind gusts of 75 miles per hour. A peak gust of 85 mph was reported at Assateague Island, Virginia. The strong winds over the Atlantic Ocean piled up seawater along the shore, which was already high due to the full Moon. The combination caused coastal flooding near Cape May and Ocean City, New Jersey, and at Lewes, Delaware, where waters rose to 9.27 feet, sending a four foot storm surge onshore.

According to various news reports, at least eight people have died storm-related deaths, and thousands spent a night stranded in cars and trucks on highways in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. At least 9,500 flights have been canceled, and citizens have been ordered to stay off the roads in some cities and towns.

Overnight on January 23, astronaut Scott Kelly captured a photograph of lightning within the system.

NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz and Joshua Stevens, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response. Caption by Mike Carlowicz.

References & Resources