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Why Are There Suddenly So Many Nor’Easters?

Wednesday is the first full day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, but you wouldn’t know it on the U.S. East Coast. A huge, ponderous snowstorm is lurching its way up the Atlantic seaboard, dumping snow from Washington to Boston.

More than two inches per hour are falling in some places. At Washington’s Reagan National Airport, it hasn’t snowed this much, this late in the season, in more than 50 years. And the storm will not be a passing event: The entire system will meander up the northeast, snowing all the while, for almost two days straight.

Blame the groundhog, perhaps, who predicted six more weeks of winter … seven weeks ago. But for residents of the region, it’s starting to feel more like a different kind of Groundhog Day. This storm is the fourth nor’easter in three weeks. After a brief warm stretch in late February that led this publication to ask if it was already spring, the country’s densest corridor has gotten pounded by windstorms, snow squalls, and persistently chilly temperatures.

As one longtime resident recently asked me: Why are we getting all of these nor’easters all of a sudden? What even is a nor’easter? And what is up with that name?

Louis W. Uccellini is the right man to answer those questions. Uccellini knows what a textbook nor’easter, or northeast snow storm, looks like—because he cowrote Northeast Snowstorms, the two-volume textbook about them. “Paul Kocin and I spent about 20 years working on that book,” Uccellini told me Wednesday. “It’s our passion. It’s what brought us to work everyday.”

Uccellini, a longtime government meteorologist, is now the director of the National Weather Service.

Big northeast snowstorms simply don’t form very often, Uccellini said: When he and his coauthor studied the half-century of weather between 1949 and 2003, they only found 47 storms that could be classified as nor’easters.

But it does make sense that the eastern U.S. has seen so many nor’easters in the last few weeks, he said. If the atmosphere is in the mood to produce a nor’easter, it doesn’t stop after making just one.

“One of the things we emphasized in the book is the episodic nature of these storms. They come in batches,” Uccellini told me. Northeast snowstorms can only emerge from a very specific set of circumstances. When those circumstances are achieved, storms can follow one after another, walloping the coast week

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