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One of New England's Most Unusual Weather Events: The 1804 Snow Hurricane

The following is an excerpt from the book "Tropical New England", which was written by me here at New England Storm Center. This book will be released in full later in May. In this book, you will find the most complete and comprehensive history on tropical cyclones in New England.

Snow covered trees after a storm, likely what the 1804 snow hurricane looked like
Scenes like this were likely common across New England after this storm. Photo: Dave Ginsberg (from the 2011 Halloween Weekend Storm)

Something strange happened on October 9, 1804. This storm was the first tropical cyclone in recorded history to produce snowfall. Meteorologist and weather historian David Ludlum wrote in 1960 that the storm may have originated non-tropically near the Appalachian Mountains; however, given the storm's characteristics upon arrival to the northeast, he concluded that the storm most likely originated in the tropics. As a result, the storm would be tropical in nature. The storm most likely formed near Puerto Rico, according to modern analysis from the early 2000s. This would confirm the tropical nature of the storm.

The storm moved up the coast, staying close to the shore of Virginia and North Carolina. The storm then turned northeast, passing over Long Island, very close to New York City, and into southern New England. The storm's center most likely passed just north of Boston before returning to the Atlantic Ocean.

At six a.m., there was "hard rain...heavy black clouds, wild and dark," according to a report from the time in New London, CT. The temperature was also 55 degrees early in the morning, according to the report. The temperature had dropped to 38 degrees by one o'clock in the afternoon. A 17-degree drop in seven hours.

According to a report from Boston, MA, the wind rose from the south southeast on the ninth. The wind then shifted to the east before abating for a while. The wind then shifted back to the northeast, bringing "unprecedented violence and fury." This indicates that the eye passed over this region.

The storm had completely moved over New England by the evening of October 9th. According to a 2001 study, the storm experienced unusual strengthening while over Massachusetts, with sustained winds reaching 110 mph at the center. This would elevate the storm to a category two hurricane. As it moved back over the Atlantic Ocean, the storm began to transition from tropical to extratropical.

Based on storm reports, a very cold air mass most likely settled over New York and western New England. For early October, this air mass was unusually cold. As a result, snow fell in northern New England. Only three hurricanes in history produced snow at landfall. The storm was tropical when it hit New England, and it did not become extratropical until well after landfall. Sandy in 2012 exhibited many similarities to this storm, and there is considerable debate about that storm's tropical identity. That storm will be covered in detail later.

This storm had a devastating effect on New England. After all, it was a category two storm that ripped through Massachusetts. The high winds caused widespread devastation across the state. The Old North Church steeple in Boston was blown off, the roof of the King's Chapel was blown 200 feet away, several homes were destroyed, and numerous chimneys, roofs, and windows were damaged. Thousands of trees were felled.

Along with the usual damage caused by hurricanes, this storm brought the added impact of snowfall. On the tail end of the storm, snow piled up in Western Connecticut, with over a foot reported in Goshen. This storm's precipitation varied greatly from location to location. There was no snow in New Haven, but there was nearly four inches of rain

Winds were less severe in northern New England, but the region received more snow. The Connecticut River Valley, situated between New Hampshire and Vermont, received up to a foot and a half of snow. With up to two feet of snow reported in Goffstown, Central New Hampshire may have been the state's jackpot. The Green Mountains, where up to three feet of snow was reported, were most likely the jackpot for snow in New England. This heavy snowfall broke numerous branches, causing most roads in the area to become impassable.

This amount of snow at this time of year is unprecedented. It was September just over a week before all of this snow fell. Fall had only just begun. Much of New England's leaves were still green. Naturally, the majority of the snow melted soon after the event.

The snow hurricane of 1804 was one of the most unusual weather events in American history. This hurricane was the most unusual to hit New England, defying nearly every pattern that New England hurricanes follow. Snowfall, particularly at high rates, in early October (aside from the mountaintops of New England) is nearly unprecedented. Storms in 2011 and 2012 produced heavy snow, but both occurred in late October. This was the first tropical cyclone in recorded history to produce snow, and it remains one of the few to produce snow while still fully tropical in nature.

The wind was recorded blowing from the southwest, whereas winds in New England hurricanes normally blow from the southeast. This hurricane also strengthened while over land, making it one of only two tropical systems known to do so. The cold air mass caused the overland strengthening as the storm transitioned to an extratropical system. It's difficult to overstate how unusual this storm was.



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