Whenever a forecaster says anything about a pending “nor’easter” during a weather report, stores start selling out of batteries, milk, and bread. For a lot of folks, nor’easter basically means “a really big storm”. And that’s not wrong, since nor’easters have earned their bad-boy reputation. But what makes a really big storm a nor’easter?

According to the National Weather Service, nor’easters occur on the East Coast of the U.S. People have been using the term “nor’easter” since at least the 19th century, but that doesn’t just refer to the area where they hit. It actually refers to where the wind comes from. When warm air out of the Southwest meets cold air moving south out of the polar region of Canada, it creates a strong wind called a “polar jet stream” which then moves east across our continent.

Meanwhile, the warm, powerful current known as the Gulf Stream is flowing up the East Coast, heating both the water & air above it along the way. Whenever that warm northeasterly air collides with the east-moving polar jet stream, the temperature difference between them creates a low-pressure system, which forms precipitation. It usually happens between Georgia & New Jersey, and the associated wind cyclone gains strength as it shifts farther north. Where you might be could either be pelted with rain or blanketed in snow, depending on how cold it may be. For instance, folks in Boston might be shoveling their driveways while, at the same time, people in Baltimore are dealing with flooded streets.

Nor’easters look very similar to hurricanes from above, but they’re not the same. The word hurricane refers to a specific sort of cyclone, one that forms in the the Atlantic Ocean’s tropical waters. Those warm waters can heat up the air above & form storm clouds that can eventually become a hurricane if & when it collides with warm air moving westward from Africa.

So, if you’re ever unsure whether bad weather headed your way is a hurricane or a nor’easter, you can always just call it “a really big storm”.

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