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Thanksgiving Eve nor’easter now looks certain to make holiday travel a nightmare

November 24, 2013
November 24, 2013

Q&A with meteorologist Eric Holthaus

Quartz meteorologist Eric Holthaus answered your questions about the Thanksgiving Eve storm, how it will affect holiday travel, and more. The video above is an archive of the chat. His original piece is below.

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It looks increasingly certain that a major storm will hit the eastern half of the United States on the day before Thanksgiving, the busiest travel day of the year.

But here’s the twist: Don’t expect a white Thanksgiving in New York, Boston, or other big cities. Along the coast, the tempest will manifest itself more like a tropical storm than a snowy nor’easter. That means a deluge of heavy rain and sustained high winds—terrible travel conditions, by any definition.

In fact, a three- to four-inch blast of chilly rain is now expected across a broad swath of the southern and eastern US, including the major travel hubs of Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Charlotte, DC, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. If you plan to venture outside, this storm will likely find you.

The entire US will be affected

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Virtually the entire US will be affected by this storm: whether directly by rain, wind, snow, or ice, or indirectly via cascading travel delays. The storm’s incredibly poor timing will enhance the impacts of an otherwise only slightly worse than average early winter atmospheric medley. The AAA predicts 43.4 million Americans will venture farther than 50 miles over the coming holiday weekend, the vast majority of them by car.

Low clouds and high winds will force many hub airports to reduce takeoff and landing frequency during the storm’s peak on the day before Thanksgiving, so expect delayed and cancelled flights. And heavy rains will mean slow going on already congested highways along the east coast.

The silver lining? This storm will be a relatively quick mover, spending less than a day over any particular location. That means timing could be everything when making plans and anticipating the storm’s next move. And come Thanksgiving morning, the storm will effectively be gone, leaving bone-chilling air in its wake but relatively great travel conditions for those stuck in the rebooking line. Lingering strong winds will force New York’s Thanksgiving Day parade to firmly tether their humongous balloons.

Stronger, windier, warmer

A few key aspects of the storm have changed since my last update:

  • Stronger: The storm is now expected to join forces—to a greater degree than previously thought—with a hefty cold front heading down from northern Canada. On balance, this will make the storm stronger when it hits the east coast of the US. The resulting not-quite-nor’easter, not-quite-tropical storm will slog its way through our country at the worst possible time.
  • Windier: The storm’s center is now expected to take a more inland track, effectively right up I-95, which means the storm will gain greater access to the still-warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf Stream. As a result, sustained winds at the storm’s peak could top tropical storm force (40 mph) from the New Jersey shore to Boston, including New York City, Long Island, and Cape Cod. A few thousand feet above the ground, winds will be screaming at over 100 mph. It’s unlikely to be widespread, but a few wind gusts of hurricane force (75 mph) could reach the ground.
  • Warmer: The inland track also means the storm, as a whole, will be warmer. The bulk of the storm’s precipitation will fall as cold rain and not snow over the major coastal cities. A foot (or more) of snow is still expected from the mountains of West Virginia through western Pennsylvania to central New York and northern New England, including the ski slopes in the Adirondacks and Vermont.
  • More certainty: The GFS model—a laggard in accuracy, but definitely no slouch—has finally come on board with the other major weather models, leaving very little doubt that a big storm will indeed form and create a widespread impact.

Not such a white Thanksgiving

But will it be enough to turn the ground white, instilling some holiday cheer as the storm leaves? Maybe, maybe not.

A powerful cold front will blast through the country as the storm exits on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, driving wind chills and temperatures well below freezing. But the storm will be moving so quickly that there may not be enough of it left to produce snow in the big cities. Here’s a worst-case-scenario snow map from the National Weather Service, showing the maximum totals that can be expected through the day before Thanksgiving. Note that the major cities can only realistically hope for about an inch or so:

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What to expect, day-by-day

Monday, Nov. 25

Freezing rain, sleet, and snow are inbound for much of Texas, including Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, where several airlines have already begun the de-icing process. Winter storm warnings currently blanket the state. Heavy rain will reach New Orleans.

Tuesday, Nov. 26

The storm’s center reaches the Gulf Coast, and will begin drawing energy from as far south as the Caribbean. Travel trouble peaks in the major hubs of Atlanta and Charlotte. Heavy rain will begin moving up the east coast throughout the day. As the storm initially reaches New York City and Boston, some sleet or otherwise icy conditions may appear for the first few hours. By the overnight hours, travel will start to be affected in the northeast.

Wednesday, Nov. 27

By daybreak, the storm will have fully joined forces with the Canadian cold front, and will be strengthening quickly. Temperatures should remain above freezing all day for the coastal cities. A period of freezing rain is possible along the front range of the Appalachians from Georgia to New England, via a process known as cold air damming. Wind gusts could reach 50 to 75 mph along coastal areas of New Jersey, Long Island, and Massachusetts. Sustained winds in New York City and Boston may reach 40 mph, at which point airport activity could become severely restricted.

Heavy rain, blustery winds, and generally tropical storm-like conditions could be felt from Atlanta to Maine. Meanwhile, behind the cold front from the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina to western New York State, heavy snow could total a foot or more. Chilly air will spill as far south as the Gulf Coast, with morning temperatures in the 30s possible in Houston and New Orleans.

Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28

As the storm quickly moves northward into Canada, cold air will rush southward in huge quantities, bringing in bright blue sky, blustery winds, and wind chill values in the teens or single digits for much of the east coast. Some lingering snow showers could fall from Charlotte up to Boston, but this is still relatively uncertain. Travel troubles should ease, since the storm’s major effects will be over.

Black Friday, Nov. 29

Any snow that falls should stick around for at least a few days as cold air settles in for an extended stay. In fact, it’s setting up to be a nearly ideal Black Friday, weather-wise, since cold weather has been shown to help boost retail sales by getting shoppers into the holiday spirit.

Black Friday morning low temperatures, nationwide:

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