A winter storm with snow, wind and extreme cold is dangerous to living things. Snow storms come in many forms. If snow is light and doesn’t fall for long it is called snow flurries. If it falls enough to leave snow on the ground, it is called snow showers. Short, intense snowfall with gusty wind is called a snow squall. If the wind makes the snow blinding and drifting, it is called blowing snow. If the wind is over 35 mile per hour and the blowing snow makes it impossible to see, it is a blizzard. Sleet is rain that freezes into pellets before reaching the ground, while freezing rain freezes as it touches the ground forming a layer of ice on roads, sidewalks and trees, making travel hazardous.
Winter Storms also Form by Location
The Nor’easter is a storm that forms moving up the Atlantic coast. It brings warm air full of moisture off the ocean. As it moves north, it cools, its water condensing into heavy clouds. When it hits the freezing temperatures of the Northeast it will drop heavy snowfall.
Lake-effect snow occurs when cold air moves down from Canada and hits the moist air off the Great Lakes dropping snow in the central plains or cold air off the Rockies mixes with wet air from the Gulf of Mexico creating snow storms in the Midwest. These massive blizzards result in very deep snow, wind and sometimes extremely cold temperatures.
Blizzards can also form from winds off the Pacific ocean, heavy with moisture that hit the Northwestern coast of the U.S. in California, Oregon and Washington States. If the temperatures are below freezing on the Pacific coast, rapid cooling will cause the moisture to condense and drop as heavy snow. As the wind pushes east and hits the mountains, heavy snow falls that closes passes and creates avalanche dangers.
Winter storms in Alaska are fearsome events. Waves driven by high winds across the Bering Sea cause flooding with large chunks of sea ice crashing into coastal towns. Temperatures can drop to dangerous levels (-60° or colder) forming ice fogs that making even breathing outdoors dangerous.
Even the south experiences winter storms at times when cold air drops down and damages crops and uninsulated homes. Because they are not used to yearly winter storms they struggle with unusual snow and ice removal.
The Good Side of Winter Storms - SNOW!
Winter storms may cause many hazards, but snow is an important part of our yearly weather.
• It provides water vital to our lakes, streams and land.
• It insulates against cold temperatures. Plants, animals and even human homes are protected by thick layer of snow on the ground.
• It provides winter recreation – skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, etc. – and drives billions of dollars of business for outdoor recreation centers, winter clothing and equipment providers, travel, hotels, etc.
• It is beautiful on our landscape!
What Events Form This Kind of Storm?
Winter storms are formed by three weather traits: freezing cold air, moisture and warm air rising (lift).
Moisture is brought in on wind blown across a large lake or the ocean. When this air mass collides with a colder air mass, the warm air is forced up and over the cold air, because warm air is less dense. This “lift” forms a weather “front”. A lift can also occur when warm air rises over a mountain range. The warm air carries more moisture. As it rises it will cool. The water in it will then condense into clouds and when enough moisture is present, will fall as rain or snow – in the presence of below freezing air.
Snowfall can build up and become so heavy that it blocks roads and brings down trees onto electrical and phone lines or collapses buildings. People can become stranded or cut off from food or medical services. A build up of snow can result in avalanches in the mountains and loss of livestock in agricultural areas. Snow costs towns, cities and businesses money as they struggle to remove snow and repair damage. In this same way ice storms can be very damaging. Though there is less snow to “remove,” a build up of ice can bring down trees, electrical and phone lines and make roads impassable. It can take many days to restore power to homes and businesses. Heavy snowfall also can result in many heart attacks as people try to remove the snow themselves.
Strong winds can add other hazards to snowstorms making it difficult to see, building large snowdrifts and dropping the temperatures to dangerous levels. Wind can also bring down trees and power lines and make travel hazardous. All of these hazards can create traffic accidents injuring people. Wind also can cause heat loss that can lead to frostbite and hypothermia.
Extreme cold by itself or with snow, ice or wind can also be very dangerous. People and animals out in extreme cold can get frostbite and hypothermia which can eventually cause death. Frostbite is when the skin (often areas like the nose, ears, toes and fingertips) actually begins to freeze leaving a loss of color and feeling to the area. Medical attention can repair this if it is treated quickly. Hypothermia is even more dangerous. It starts as uncontrollable shivering and will lead to the person being confused, sleepy and unable to speak properly. If not treated quickly, by warming the core of the body, it can lead to death. Fruit trees and other crops can also be damaged by cold. Poorly insulated homes can have pipes freezing and bursting. Ice jams can occur where rivers have frozen and thawed damaging roads and sheering trees. Flooding can also occur with the damage that it creates.
Historic Examples of This Kind of Storm
There have been many historic blizzard with high winds and deep snowfall that people remember. The most notable blizzards occurred in 1888. Throughout that winter blizzards raged throughout the United States. The blizzard that struck the Atlantic coast in March 1888 dropped 40 inches of snow in some places - more than three feet. Then the wind stirred up drifts that formed walls of snow 50 feet tall. More than 200 people died in NYC alone from that one storm.