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The Snow of the Outer Cape




“A northwest snow squall was blowing across the sedgy marshes and the dunes, ‘seeming nowhere to alight’ in the enormous landscape, and whirling off to the sullen, iron-green, and icy sea.”

– Henry Beston, The Outermost House


The Outermost Householder’s words came from December 1926, but the scene can play out on any given frigid winter day when “a northwest snow squall” blows across marshes, dunes, and anything else that happens to be in its way.


“The very snow in the air had a character of its own, for it was the snow of the Outer Cape and the North Atlantic, snow icy and crystalline, and sweeping across the dunes and moors rather than upon them,” Beston wrote. This is not a rare event on the Cape, as it may be on the other side of the bridges. “Ocean effect snow" is a regular part of winter here.


Former WHDH-TV meteorologist Todd Gross once explained that “it is simply a very cold wind that blows steadily near the ground level and aloft over a body of ocean that is far warmer. If the winds are aligned just right, it produces belts of flurries, or snow squalls that can amount to dusting, to in the case of the great lakes, as much as 80 inches of snow! In Massachusetts, I’ve never seen more than 30 inches and that is usually combined with a coastal storm at the same time.”


On many occasions, the snow is just flurries, but sometimes, a heavy dusting covers the beach and dunes after those frigid winds pass over the warmer bay waters. About 20 years ago, yours truly noticed a large variation of snowfall on a ride from the I-95 belt to Eastham. On this winter day, there was still about eight inches of snow on the ground inland from an earlier storm. By the time the Bourne Bridge came into view, there was no snow to be found. Knowing that a snow squall had passed through east of Hyannis during the previous night, the expected white covering began to be seen around Dennis, with a few inches coating the ground. In Harwich, it was several inches, and at the Eastham / Orleans rotary, there was a good foot of snow on the ground, with mountains of the white stuff piled up everywhere. All of this was courtesy of the “ocean effect” snow from the previous night.


It’s always amusing to have a phone conversation with an unsuspecting friend or relative from across the bridge and have them say, “It’s a beautiful here. Cold, but not a cloud in the sky.” The reply from the Cape? “It’s snowing like hell here,” prompting a “Huh?!” from the other end of the line.


The worst of these “storms” usually blows through the area in about an hour or so, leaving a few smokey and purple sun-tinted clouds in their wake. The snow truly does “have a character all its own,” as Beston put it. While the ocean squalls of winter do strike suddenly and can be a bit trying at times, it’s one of those unique marvels about living out here, on the edge of the world.


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