Winter Weather 101: Snow Squalls and Blizzards

A snow squall is an intense short-lived burst of heavy snowfall that leads to a quick reduction in visibilities and is often accompanied by gusty winds. They may be characterized by one main squall or multiple squalls.

Squalls can be particularly dangerous because they often occur with little warning. The combination of quick reductions in visibilities and sudden slick conditions on roadways can often lead to traffic accidents, freeway pileups, and subsequent injuries and fatalities. There is also a high economic impact as interstates can be shut down for hours.

Most snow squalls occur during the daylight hours but they can also occur at night.

Snow squalls are different than snow storms mainly because of duration. Squalls are short-lived and usually only last 30 to 60 minutes in any one location. A snowstorm can go on for hours or even days.

Beginning in 2018, the National Weather Service will issue Warnings for snow squalls from all Ohio NWS offices. Snow Squall Warnings will be issued for areas where the highest threat of rapidly changing visibility is the most likely to occur.

This includes the NWS office in Pittsburgh – which is responsible for the east-central Ohio region.

  • Remain alert to the latest forecast and travel conditions. Consider avoiding or delaying travel until the snow squall passes your location.
  • Leave extra time if you must travel during snow squalls as visibilities and road conditions will change rapidly.
  • Reduce your speed and turn on headlights! In a matter of seconds, unrestricted visibilities can change to near zero.
  • Don’t slam on brakes! With roads being slick, this could contribute to loss of vehicle control and also increase the risk of a chain reaction crash.

Many people confuse the term blizzard with just about any snowstorm or squall. A blizzard, however, is serious stuff. A blizzard is different from a squall not only due to the duration of the event but also the strength of wind. Winds during a blizzard are extreme and can reach 50 mph or more. In comparison, squalls are quick-hitting and relatively short timewise with winds less than 30 mph.

According to the National Weather Service, a blizzard is a storm with considerable falling or blowing snow and winds in excess of 35 mph and visibilities of less than 1/4 mile for at least 3 hours.

Blizzards are also extremely dangerous. Wind chill temperatures can drop to as low as -50° in an intense blizzard, freezing skin and lowering body temperature to deadly levels. People can become disoriented and lost as visibility drops to zero. Accidents can result in serious and fatal injuries.

Blizzards can cripple an area for days shutting down transportation and commerce. Electric and communications systems can be disrupted and out of service for days – even weeks. Fatalities to livestock – and people – are common. Thankfully, blizzards are rare occurrences.

The National Weather Service issues headlines for blizzards.



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