New England Hurricane Tracks

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The “typical” New England hurricane starts out between the coast of Africa and the Lesser Antilles. There have been cases in which a storm developed further northwest, but for the sake of averages, the aqua-blue track above appears to fit the data fairly well. I used tracks and a base map, all from Unisys.

While most tropical systems usually curve to the north and then northeast, passing harmlessly out to sea, a few storms have taken that “right-hand turn” late enough to impact New England. On a few rare occasions, storms have even moved north and northwest as they approach the Northeast coast.

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The image above shows the mean track of New England tropical systems compared to an “ideal” track.

A subtropical ridge of high pressure over the open Atlantic typically deflects tropical systems east and out to sea, well to the southeast of New England. However, if that high pressure area is far enough north or weaker, some storms can continue moving north-northeast and cross into New England.

I took the mean track and rotated it slightly, to come up with an “ideal” track in red.
Given the general weather pattern, I believe this is the most realistic worst case track for a storm moving towards New England. In order for such a track to happen, the subtropical ridge needs to be positioned far enough north so that tropical systems are moving north-northeast as they approach New England.

Given such a track, the storm is moving north as it approaches Cape Hatteras and stays over the open waters as it moves towards Long Island and New England. Notable storms like Hurricane Irene (2011) and Hurricane Floyd (1999) passed over North Carolina and the mid-Atlantic coast. This land interaction caused both storms to weaken to a Tropical Storm before they moved into Connecticut.

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The Hurricane of 1944 and Hurricane Gloria in 1985 are the closest matches to the worst-case track for a New England hurricane.

The 1944 “Great Atlantic Hurricane” was able to stay a powerful hurricane as it approached the Northeast coast. After grazing the New Jersey shoreline (with some of their worst storm damage up until Hurricane Sandy), the storm made landfall as a hurricane over Long Island and crossed over the southeastern portions of Connecticut. Winds gusted as high as 109 MPH in Hartford, Conn., according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC).

Hurricane Gloria in 1985 was the last official hurricane landfall in Connecticut. That storm also hugged the mid-Atlantic coastline, before making landfall in Connecticut. The highest sustained winds were reported at 74 MPH at Sikorsky Airport in Stratford, Conn., with a peak wind gust up to 92 MPH.

Both storms caused moderate coastal flooding, damage and storm surge to the Connecticut coastline. The Hurricane of 1944 passed far enough east so that areas like Rhode Island and Cape Cod were hit harder than Connecticut and also Hurricane Gloria took a more direct route into Connecticut and it arrived near low tide. This minimized the coastal flooding, with a storm surge of 5 feet was recorded in Groton, Conn.

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A few hurricanes have taken more unique routes to make it to Connecticut.

The Hurricane of 1938 is the only known hurricane to make landfall in New England while moving due north. Due to the speed of the storm, it stayed rather strong as it ripped into the area. Combine this forward speed with already strong winds, and the damage was increased. Wind damage was extensive all across New England with major flooding at the shoreline as well. The peak wind gust of 186 MPH at Blue Hill Observatory in Massachusetts was by far the strongest hurricane-force wind report in recorded history across New England.

Hurricane Carol in 1954 was unique for a few reasons. It was one of the rare storms to develop near the Bahamas and end up making landfall in New England. Hurricane Bob in 1991 developed in the same general area, but that storm only provided a glancing blow to New England. Hurricane Carol was a very direct hit, especially because it was near peak intensity as it made landfall. With the timing of landfall near high tide, major storm surges in excess of 10 feet were measured across the Connecticut shoreline. For some areas, the flooding from this hurricane was the worst that those areas would see until Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Hurricane Donna in 1960 is the only hurricane in recent memory to make landfall in both Florida and New England. The storm paralleled the East Coast, with hurricane-force conditions in every coastal state from Florida up to Maine. While damage in Connecticut was moderate, the New Jersey coastline and New York City were hit even harder. The storm surge of 11 feet at New York Harbor ranks as one of the worst surges on record, although Hurricane Sandy proved far worse. A maximum sustained wind gust of 145 MPH was measured at Blue Hill Observatory in Massachusetts.

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Hurricane Sandy did not make landfall as a hurricane, but it was still a powerful storm.

  1. Hurricane Sandy merged with another system to create one massive storm. This merge caused Sandy to become a hybrid storm system, one with a huge wind field. This caused historic storm damage from the mid-Atlantic region, right up into New England. Hurricane-force winds were measured on Long Island and coastal Connecticut, even though the center of the storm was well to the south.
  2. Sandy’s rare track to the northwest resulted in major wind and coastal flooding. The image above shows the rough storm surge direction. With Sandy moving northwest, it literally caused water to pile up along the New Jersey shore, as well into New York Harbor, Long Island and Long Island Sound. The area has not really seen such a storm track in recent memory, so not only was this track rare, but it brought some of the worst flooding on record.
  3. Sandy’s movement was also unique, as the storm slowed down near landfall. Most hurricanes in the Northeast are accelerating as they reach that latitude. This generally results in only a short period of strong winds and coastal flooding. With Sandy slowing down near landfall, multiple tide cycles were impacted. Many areas from New Jersey into Connecticut experienced major flooding for 24-48 hours, which only made matters worse.

There can be an extensive debate on whether or not Sandy was a true hurricane as it approached the Northeast coast. Regardless of the technicalities, the storm undoubtedly brought hurricane-force conditions to several states in the Northeast.

A special thanks goes out to Unisys for supplying tropical system tracks.

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Quincy

Quincy is a meteorologist and storm chaser who travels around the country documenting and researching severe weather. He has on-air experience with stations such as WTNH-TV in New Haven, CT and WREX-TV in Rockford, IL. He was most recently a digital meteorologist for weather.com. After achieving his B.S. degree in Meteorology at Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) in 2009, he returned as a University Assistant to help produce weather broadcasts. He also gave guest lectures and worked on website design. He has over nine years of professional weather forecasting experience and his forecasts have been featured in newspapers and on radio stations in multiple states.

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