The Dazzling Curiosity & Ferocity of Winter Storms on Cape Cod

Cape Cod Life  /  November/December 2019 / ,

Writer: James P. Freeman

The Dazzling Curiosity & Ferocity of Winter Storms on Cape Cod


Cape Cod Life  /  November/December 2019 / ,

Writer: James P. Freeman

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

Henceforth, the idea of coastal areas being routinely imperiled by winter storms became front and center. And, conceivably, advances in climate-related technology and early-warning alerts fed that psychology. The ’78 monster itself became a psychological benchmark. Before the days of Doppler radar and ensemble modeling, the most memorable Cape storms were chronicled by journalists, not meteorologists. Old newspapers, periodicals, and books told the story. And back then words, not images or metrics, filled minds and bled hearts, which makes Kelley’s written work so compelling today. 

Ironically, Thoreau, who wrote the most transcendental, if not most famous, manuscript about Cape Cod is not among the scribes who captured the exquisite cruelty of winter on the barred and bended arm; none of his four trips to the Cape in the mid-1800s occurred during the winter. Henry Beston was more daring. His eyewitness accounts are riveting. During a yearlong stay at the Outermost House in Eastham, he wrote in January 1927, “So began the worst winter on the Cape for close upon fifty years, a winter marked by great storms and tides, six wrecks, and the loss of many lives.” He was enthralled by the fierce gale to hit on February 19 and 20, describing a “convulsion of elemental fury.” Later, in March, he details the wreck of the three-masted schooner, Montclair, off Orleans. (Her bones still reappear today after a good winter thrashing.)      

Then there is the account of the terrible Portland Gale of 1898, (so named for the sinking of a side-wheel steamer Portland, plying between Boston and the city in Maine) probably the worst storm to hit the region before the ’78 blizzard. Much of author Joseph C. Lincoln’s work was set in a fictionalized Cape Cod. In one work, Lincoln remembers the November storm. Storm damage was catastrophic with tremendous damage to the Provincetown waterfront and its whaling fleet. Regionally, more than 400 people perished and 150 boats were destroyed. Nearly 200 went down with the steamer off Cape Ann (it is not known the exact number as the ship manifest was lost too). Among the dead was a newly married couple of Lincoln’s acquaintance. Eerily, he memorializes, “…the young wife’s trunk, with all her bridal finery, was washed ashore at Orleans.” Husband and wife were never found. 

Vineyard Haven, 1898

The late Noel Beyle, local author and agitator, relished winter weather. His black and white photo-essay booklets on all things Cape Cod are tinged with gallows humor. “The real test of wills,” he thought, “is whether the weather is hot or cold! That is the true contest on Cape Cod, regardless of the season, and it’s paramount most every winter.” April may be the cruelest month, he joked, but there was no funny business during the April 6-7 blizzard that blanketed the Cape in 1982. Its “north-to-northwest gale” and full-moon tide caused “severe erosion along parts of the Bay shoreline.” 

Of course, other storms deserve honorable mention. Some bloggers on americanwx.com rank the January 2015 blizzard, named Juno by The Weather Channel, right up there with the 2005 blizzard. The February 2013 “extreme nor’easter” Nemo bore resemblance to its 1978 ancestor (it was a benchmark storm too). Much was made of the three roaring nor’easters that struck the Cape in March of 2018 over the span of just eleven days. All three storms were essentially benchmark events. And the coastal erosion the trio caused was depressingly brutal at places like Nauset Beach in Orleans. Their formation and subsequent track was, as weather.com reported, unusual but not unprecedented. Storms, like history, can repeat themselves.        

These images show the effects of winter storms as recently as 2018

The Cape’s unique location makes it a desirable target when the gods rule divinely and conditions align perfectly. Cape Cod sits on the edge of a continent and on the edge of an ocean. It also sits halfway between the equator and the North Pole, where tropical and arctic air clash. Throw in a fluctuating jet stream and the Labrador Current and Gulf Stream, too. As a consequence, weather comes from all directions. 

In many ways Kelley himself bridges past and present—forging yesterday’s journalist with today’s meteorologist. His state-of-the-art tools allow him unparalleled access to high-tech prediction, but his old-school weather logs allow him unmatched access to recollection—an intangible combination that gives his on-air presentation the depth of soul.

Tim Kelley boasts that, “Cape Cod has the most interesting weather on earth.” Especially the winter variety, but discussion of storms of note and impact in relation to the Cape cannot conclude without recollection of 1991’s Hurricane Bob. Perhaps due to its fairly recent historical occurrence, or possibly due to the unusual destruction experienced by the region, stories of personal tales still resonate and repeat in everyday discussion of extreme weather.

In a data-driven world, we demand explanation for events that just might be beyond our ability to explain and affect. Alas, the conundrum of the age-old conflict: man vs. environment. But Kelley reminds us, “Weather is a balance of extremes; ‘normal’ is abnormal.” 

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer. He is a former columnist with The Cape Cod Times and New Boston Post. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, The Cape Codder, newenglanddiary.com, golocalprov.com, nationalreview.com, and insidesources.com.

Learn more about the Cape and Islands with our Pages of History and download our 1992 issue of Cape Cod Life on Hurricane Bob for more storm stories!