Cold, white, windy — but maybe not a blizzard

Meteorologists await data on wind, visibility

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By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / December 28, 2010

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Was it or wasn’t it? Now that the snow has fallen, meteorologists are beginning to pore over the data to determine whether the Christmas weekend nor’easter that brought coastal flooding and a top 10 snowfall record actually earned its storm stripes as a blizzard.

To many people, it’s mere semantics: Blizzard or not, people are still shoveling out. However, bonafide blizzards have sustained winds gusting more than 35 miles per hour and visibility reduced to a quarter-mile for at least three hours, and the National Weather Service declined to call the weekend storm a “blizzard’’ until the results were in. Now, meteorologists are saying, tentatively, that Sunday’s storm looks like the real thing.

“Unofficially, preliminary examination of data here does look like we hit blizzard criteria at Boston in the overnight hours between midnight and 4 a.m.,’’ said Rebecca Gould, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton. “Part of it, with respect to whether it was a blizzard or not, is the gustiness of the winds — so if the gusts only got to 34 miles per hour, technically it is not a blizzard to us.’’

Matt Noyes, chief meteorologist at NECN, said the storm appeared to have lived up to the name in southern New England, within 20 miles of the coast. Noyes hadn’t closely examined all the data, but said the chatter among meteorologists was that as far north as Boston, the storm reached blizzard conditions in various spots.

“I would say the storm overperformed’’ expectations, Noyes said. “The coastal flooding was of a significant magnitude . . . In terms of the wind, it certainly put on a great show.’’

Noyes said the weather system had left a footprint on the rest of the country before it reached Massachusetts. Last week, it caused major rainfall and landslides in California before peeling off to sweep north across the Rockies, making its way east to bring snow to the Tennessee River Valley. Finally, it dumped snow in Georgia before turning northward.

The storm barreled into New England as a classic nor’easter, fed by northeasterly winds. The warm ocean air met the cold inland air, creating an unusual effect along the coastal front: Noyes said he got a call from a woman in Hull Sunday night who lives a few miles from Logan International Airport, and at her house the ground was bare and it was raining.

The storm brought 3 1/2-foot storm surges that caused flooding in many coastal communities.

According to Noyes, measured by the barometric pressure, the storm was on track to be one of the top 10 strongest winter coastal storms in the last 50 years, too.

But not everyone is sold that the storm was a blizzard in Boston.

Robert Skilling, chief observer at the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory in Milton, said he battled treacherous roads and 60-mile-per-hour winds to get to his post yesterday afternoon.

“It’s a major nor’easter — a powerful one. We’ve had snowstorms of 20 inches, but the wind has been especially strong in this one,’’ Skilling said. There’s no doubt the storm was severe, but he said he was waiting for more data before declaring it a blizzard.

“We don’t have all our numbers in yet,’’ Skilling said. “It’s a little bit early.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at