New England Hurricanes

Paleotempestology      New England Hurricanes     Sea Level Rise

Map of intense hurricanes tracks over New England

Historic Hurricane Tracks
Click to enlarge. (50 KB)

Southern New England is no stranger to the considerable effects of hurricanes.  New England protrudes into the western Atlantic often in the path of fast moving tropical storms and hurricanes as they track north.  Intense hurricanes of category 3 or greater on the Saffir Simpson scale (maximum sustained wind speed of 179-209 km/hr) are rare in New England, however.   The cool sea surface temperatures south of New England typically result in significant weakening of these systems as they move north, but their fast forward motion can often make up for this loss of intensity. The forward motion of these fast moving storms enhances the winds on the right side of the hurricane.  Storm surge results from the hurricane force winds driving ocean water on-shore, and to a lesser degree the response of the sea surface to the extremely low atmospheric pressure of the storm.   Tide gauge records of storm surge provide evidence for the distribution, timing and magnitude of flooding resulting from landfalling hurricanes.  Redfield and Miller (1957), studied water levels associated with two category 2 hurricanes, on September 14, 1944 and August, 31, 1954 (Carol), as well as, the category 3 hurricane of September, 21, 1938, which all stuck the southern New England coast.  The maximum level of storm surge generally occurred between 60 and 160 km to the right of the storm path.  The highest water levels occurred in embayments like Buzzards and Narragansett Bay’s as a result of focusing of storm surge.

The September 21, 1938 hurricane, the last intense (category 3 or greater) hurricane to strike Long Island, NY and southern New England made landfall over central Long Island and tracked north into central New England, still maintaining a distinct eye (Minsinger 1988, Brooks 1939).  Wind velocities to the right of the storm’s track exceeded 190 km/hr and a maximum wind gust of 299 km/hr was recorded at the Blue Hills observatory in Milton, Massachusetts.  The lowest recorded barometric pressure was 946 mb at the Coast Guard Station, Bellport, New York. A storm surge combined with an astronomically high tide rose over 3 meters above normal spring tide levels along the open coast, while focusing in Narragansett and Buzzards Bays resulted in over 5 meters of storm surge in many areas (Paulsen 1940, Redfield and Miller 1957).  Significant overwash, coastal modification and erosion occurred from Long Island, NY to southeastern Massachusetts as a result of the combined effect of storm surge and wave action associated with this hurricane (Wilby et al 1939, Nichols and Marston 1939).  Over 600 lives were lost and property damage was estimated at approximately 400 million dollars (Brooks 1939).  As a result of increased population and resources in the region, a storm of similar intensity striking southern New England today, would likely result in approximately 17 billion dollars of property damage (Pielke and Landsea 1998).

Analysis of historical records indicates that the southern New England coast was struck by three additional hurricanes since European settlement of similar intensity to the 1938 Hurricane (Boose and Foster in press).  On September 8, 1869 a compact, but intense hurricane struck southeastern New England (Ludlum1963).  The storm passed just to the west of Narragansett Bay and Providence, RI.  The short duration of hurricane force winds and the timing of landfall being coincident with low tide combined to lessen the level of storm surge.  A storm surge of only 2 meters was noted in Narragansett Bay (Bristol, RI) approximately 40 km to the northeast of Succotash Marsh.  The Great September Gale of 1815 struck Long Island and southern New England on the morning of September 23, 1815.  Historians have frequently equated this storm to the 1938 Hurricane (Ludlum 1963, Minsinger 1998, Snow 1943).  It made landfall on Long Island, NY near Center Moriches less than 16 km to the east of the landfall of the 1938 hurricane and resulted in a similar damage pattern.  The storm surge height at Providence, RI was approximately 3 meters, nearly 60 cm below the level reached in 1938.  The first historical record of an intense hurricane striking New England is the Great Colonial Hurricane of August 25, 1635.  Occurring 15 years following the settlement of Plymouth Plantation and 5 years after the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, this hurricane was well documented for its day in the journals of Governors William Bradford and John Winthrop (Ludlum 1963).  Both Bradford and Winthrop noted storm surge heights on the southern coast of New England of over 4 m.   Storm surges of this magnitude combined with further accounts of extensive destruction of forests within the region suggest a storm of similar or greater intensity to the hurricanes of 1815 and 1938.

References

Brooks, C. F.  1939. Hurricane into New England. Geographical Review 29:119-127.

Ludlum, D.M. 1963. Early American Hurricanes. American Meteorological Society, Boston, MA, USA.

Nichols, R.L. and A.F. Marston, 1939. Shoreline Changes in Rhode Island Produced by Hurricane of September 21, 1938. Bulletin of the Geological Society of America 50:1357-1370.

Paulsen, C.G.  1940. Hurricane floods of September 1938. U.S.G.S. Water Supply Paper 867.

Pielke, R.A. Jr., and C.W. Landsea.   1998. Normalized hurricane damages in the United States: 1925-95. Journal of the Meteorological Society of America 13:621-631.

Redfield, A.C., and A.R. Miller.   1957. Water Levels Accompanying Atlantic Coast Hurricanes. Meteorological Monographs 2(10):1-22.

Wilby, F.B., G.R. Young, C.H. Cunningham, A.C. Lieber, Jr., R.K. Hale, T. Saville and M.P. O’brien, 1939. Inspection of Beaches in Path of the Hurricane of September 21, 1938. Shore and Beach 7:43-47.


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Paleotempestology      New England Hurricanes     Sea Level Rise