Winter storms occur regularly across the United States, and despite their moniker, they can even hit in the spring or fall if conditions are right. Winter storms are characterized by the type of precipitation they produce.
Several kinds of precipitation can occur during the winter—rain, freezing rain, snow, and sleet. These weather conditions most commonly form in the Plains or along the East Coast in winter, as well as in storm systems that move onshore along the West Coast.
What Is A Winter Storm?
A winter storm is an event in which the varieties of precipitation are formed that only occur at low temperatures, such as snow or sleet, or a rainstorm where ground temperatures are low enough to allow ice to form.
Some types of winter precipitation:
- Rain—Water droplets that form in clouds and fall to the ground. All precipitations starts out as ice or snow crystals at the cloud level, but when it falls into a warmer layer, it melts into rain.
- Freezing Rain—Rains droplets that fall into a shallow layer of cold air near the earth’s surface can freeze upon contact with the ground, leaving a coating of glaze.
- Snow—Frozen precipitation in the form of an ice crystal. Snow requires the temperatures to be below freezing in all or most of the atmosphere.
- Sleet—Frozen precipitation falling as ice pellets. Ice pellets occur when snowflakes melt into raindrops as they pass through a thin layer or warmer air.
Some types of winter storms:
- Blizzards—Characterized by low temperatures (usually below 20 degrees Fahrenheit) and accompanied by winds that are at least 35 miles per hour or greater. Blizzards also have sufficient falling and/ or blowing snow that reduces visibility to ¼ mile.
- Ice Storms—Results when freezing rain accumulates to at least ¼ inch or more. As the rain freezes, ice accumulates on roads, tree limbs, power lines, etc. creating dangerous situations and driving conditions.
- Lake Effect—Occurs when a mass of sufficiently cold air moves over a body of warmer water, creating an unstable temperature profile in the atmosphere.
- Nor’easter—Among the most ferocious of storms. Nor’easters are named from its continuously strong northeasterly winds blowing in from the ocean ahead of the storm and over coastal areas. They are notorious for producing heavy snow, rain, and oversized waves that crash onto Atlantic beaches, with wind gusts that can exceed hurricane force intensity.
Safety & Preparedness
Winter weather can affect all areas of the United States, including the deep south and the deserts of the Southwest.
Winter storms can be predicted based on weather patterns, and warnings are given on local news broadcasts. Watch out for the following key alerts:
- Winter Weather Advisory—When a significant winter storm or hazardous winter weather is occurring, imminent, and is an inconvenience.
- Winter Storm Watch—A significant winter weather—heavy snow, sleet, freezing rain—is expected but not imminent.
- Winter Storm Warning—Significant winter storm or hazardous winter weather is occurring, imminent, or likely, and is a threat to life and property.
- Blizzard Warning—Winds that are at least 35 miles per hour or greater, blowing snow that will reduce visibility, and dangerous wind chills are expected.
- Wind Chill Index—The calculation of temperatures that takes into consideration the effects of wind and temperature on the human body. It is not the actual temperature, but what it feels like to the average person.
When a winter storm is imminent or already occurring, make your way indoors and pay attention to any winter storm watches or warnings that have been issued for your location.
Some safety tips to observe while you are snowbound:
- Use extreme caution with electric space heaters. Keep them at least a few feet away from anything flammable.
- Use your fireplace, wood stove or similar heating device only if it is properly ventilated and does not leak gas into your home’s indoor space.
- Conserve heat and fuel by closing off heat to unused rooms.
- Eat regularly and drink plenty of water.
- Monitor body temperature, especially of the young and elderly.
- Drip all faucets to prevent pipes from freezing and bursting.