Winter Storms may be a common occurrence for Cape Codders, but they certainly leave their mark.

Coast Guard Beach, Blizzard of 1978, often regarded as one of the worst winter storms to hit New England

“Blizzard ’05 worst on Cape in my life…” reads the hand-written entry on January 23, 2005 in the Weather Wizard’s 5-Year Weather Diary; the witness and author: meteorologist Tim Kelley. Indeed, it was epic.

That personal proclamation actually reflects a larger generational curiosity about the wicked winter weather on Cape Cod. For centuries, the constantly unpredictable oscillations of nature’s fury have provoked vigorous debate about the worst storm to ravage the exposed, vulnerable peninsula. Hurricanes come and go. Blizzards stall and meander. Winter’s ferocity can easily be considered more spellbinding than summer’s clemency. And so the lore and allure of the Cape’s frosty weather—gales, whiteouts, nor’easters—is a rich narrative of meteorology, history and geology—and some mythology, as popular debates suggest.

A Chatham native, Kelley radiates enthusiasm about the weather like unbridled electricity. Stacks of spiral, cardboard-bound, black-inked journals, dating back to March 3, 1992, (when he first began broadcasting with then-start up New England Cable News now sharing production facilities with NBC10 Boston) bear witness to his  seat in modern meteorological history. With over 10,000 reports of daily weather, Kelley calls them “probably the most gratifying part of my career.” Reviewing them is an excavation, for they are a captivating analog history—a sober juxtaposition against the blitzkrieg of digital noise emanating from today’s televisions and mobile screens. His entries about the Cape are particularly illuminating.

Take the Blizzard of 2005, perhaps the most notorious blizzard in recorded Cape history. Kelley’s observations are stark and emphatic. He recalls that all of Nantucket was “without power,” “80 mph gusts” lashed the coast, and “31 inches” of snow buried Hyannis. (The Cape Cod Times reported 10-to-15-foot drifts and 27-foot swells.)  

Satellite image of the Blizzard of 2005

Another entry simply states, “Benchmark.” In meteorological lingo benchmark is a specific location (40°N 70°W) and helps identify the type of impacts a winter storm will have on a region. When a system moves directly across those coordinates coastal communities can expect a massive snow event, if it is cold enough. The Cape has been in the bullseye on many occasions. 

Kelley brings an encyclopedic knowledge and perspective of storms big and small. Maybe surprisingly, then, he is not convinced that The Blizzard of 1978 warrants its place on a list of top winter tempests in Cape Cod history. In fact, he calls that one a “dud.” But one man’s dud is another man’s bomb.

Make that bombogenesis. 

Don Wilding, a Cape Cod historian, writer, and speaker, thinks otherwise. While other winter beasts certainly merit consideration, “nothing tops ’78,” he asserts. That February storm did not qualify as a blizzard on the Cape, certainly not for the initial snow that changed to rain. Rather, this classic nor’easter was a severe wind (92 mph recorded in Chatham) and tidal event (14½-foot tides measured in Provincetown). “It was a different experience on the Cape,” Wilding says.

More of a winter hurricane (a definitive “eye” passed over the Outer Cape), the storm stalled out and hit at high tide on a new moon (astronomically high) when tides would have been “only” four feet above normal. More so, it obliterated the coast, especially wreaking havoc and rearranging the whole of Coast Guard Beach in Eastham and the Nauset Spit. In retrospect, that blockbuster storm became an existential threat that presaged the fears of future peril. Its lasting legacy was less physical and more psychological. True, its coastal savagery surprised many forecasters at the time but more importantly, it shocked most sensibilities. When the storm swept Henry Beston’s long-revered Outermost House out to sea it affected the psyche. Storms prior to that storm were mostly about maritime death and destruction. The shoreline was mere collateral damage. 

Outermost House, 1977
Outermost House, 1978