National weather services have been calling the latest storm to strike the Northeast a “Nor’easter.” But it wasn’t. The term Nor’easter has been used by generations along the coast of the far northeastern U.S. to describe a coastal storm swirling counterclockwise in a westerly direction from the north Atlantic Ocean, with the winds coming ashore from the northeast, with either snow or rain. Nor’easters typically live up to their nickname as a “three-day blow.”
The National Weather Service defines a Nor’easter this way: “A Nor’easter is a storm along the East Coast of North America, so called because the winds over the coastal area are typically from the northeast.” Among other facts, the wind direction distinguishes the “nor’easter” from storms coming from the interior, with winds from the northwest, or even hurricane winds making their way up from the south. It just takes a look out the window to see which way the wind is blowing.
To the long-time New Englander, the wind direction has meaning. In our experience, big weather comes from the west or the northwest. We get the smoke from forest fires in the Rockies. Lake effect snow sputters out before it reaches us from the Great Lakes. We have gotten acid rain from the industrial Midwest. The Montreal Express wind swoops down from the Canadian shield, unimpeded until it reaches the Adirondacks, which even as mountains are not a major barrier. Even the snow squalls out of upstate New York pack an extra punch.
As illustration, one summer I took a road trip to the Great Plains, from Boston. The weather was typical: bone dry, a constant breeze blowing, hard sun, unchanging except for the occasional cloudburst. One afternoon, around4 p.m., I was sitting in the bleachers at a rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Off in the distance above the flat horizon I could see, not one, not two, but several scattered cloud towers that looked like thunderstorms. Where did they come from?? We were not downwind of any storm system I knew of. But then, every afternoon around the same time, no matter where you were, there they were.
It was then I realized that the Plains are weather breeders: the storms are born right there, they do not come from somewhere else.
So for the benefit of so many trans-Mississippians who are moving into New England, the weather services may have decided that because this storm — which had come across the Great Plains — parked over the entire Northeastern states, it should be called a “Nor’easter.”
Let’s hope that not too many of our New England localisms get pasteurized, homogenized and buried as in this example, with the resultant loss of cherished, hard-earned regional identity.