Why Are Some Storms On the U.S. East Coast Called Northeasters When They Come Up From the South?

The big East Coast storm of December 1992 was called a northeaster when it came up from the south because the surface winds and the high-level winds of such a storm often go contrary to one another.

The high-altitude winds moved the storm from south to north, but the surface winds spiraled from the northeast.

For another example, in the blizzard of March 12 and 13, 1993, the winds at an altitude of 15,000 feet were blowing 120 miles an hour from the south, while the surface winds were blowing from the northeast.

The realization that a storm might be moving in a different direction from that of its surface winds goes back to the days of Ben Franklin.

In the late eighteenth century, Franklin, an avid weather watcher in his adopted city of Philadelphia, corresponded with his brother, who lived to the north, in Boston.

When they were both trying to observe an eclipse of the moon, Franklin noticed that as the winds picked up from the northeast, he felt them before his brother did. He was the first to notice this phenomenon in a documented way.

The high-level winds direct the storms, but they have their own low-level circulations.

If a cork floating in a stream is spinning, and you are a bubble on the surface of the stream, you may be spun around the cork in one direction, while the cork itself is moving with the stream.

It is the 3-D aspect of the atmosphere that adds intrigue to why storms move as they do.