What is a blizzard?
Blizzards are severe winter storms that pack a combination of blowing snow and wind resulting in very low visibilities. While heavy snowfalls and severe cold often accompany blizzards, they are not required. Sometimes strong winds pick up snow that has already fallen, creating a blizzard. Officially, the National Weather Service defines a blizzard as large amounts of falling OR blowing snow with winds in excess of 35 mph and visibilities of less than 1/4 of a mile for an extended period of time (greater than 3 hours). When these conditions are expected, the National Weather Service may issue a “Blizzard Warning”. When a less severe, but still dangerous, winter storm is expected a “Winter storm Watch” or “Winter storm Warning” may be issued. A “Winter storm Watch” is issued in advance and means that there is the possibility of a winter storm affecting your area. Keep alert and stay tuned to TV, radio, and other sources of weather information. A “Winter storm Warning” means a winter storm is imminent or already occurring.
What makes blizzards dangerous?
Blizzards can create a variety of dangerous conditions. Traveling by automobile can become difficult or even impossible due to “whiteout” conditions and drifting snow. If you must drive in a blizzard, be prepared! Make sure your automobile is properly equipped and that you have emergency supplies in case you become stranded or lost.
The strong winds and cold temperatures accompanying blizzards can combine to create another danger. The wind chill factor is the amount of cooling one “feels” due to the combination of wind and temperature. For instance, a strong wind combined with a temperature of just below freezing can have the same effect as a still air temperature about 35 degrees colder. A wind chill chart may be used to estimate the wind chill factor.
Exposure to low wind chill values can result in frostbite or hypothermia. Frostbite is a severe reaction to cold exposure that can permanently damage its victims. A loss of feeling and a white or pale appearance in fingers, toes, or nose and ear lobes are symptoms of frostbite. Hypothermia is a condition brought on when the body temperature drops dangerously low. Symptoms or hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, slow speech, memory lapses, frequent stumbling, drowsiness, and exhaustion. Both hypothermia and frostbite require immediate medical assistance! However, low wind chill values shouldn’t keep you from going outside, but encourage you be informed and dress properly.
Blizzards also can cause a variety of other problems. Power outages can occur due to strong winds and heavy snow. Pipes can freeze and regular fuel sources may be cut off.
The Word ‘Blizzard’ was first used in 1870 during a severe snowstorm in Iowa and Minnesota, by an Estherville, Iowa newspaper. The word has its origins in boxing, referring to a volley of punches in Boxing. The word was first used by the USA signal corps weather service in 1876.
An extreme form of blizzard is a whiteout, when downdrafts coupled with snowfall become so severe that it is impossible to distinguish the ground from the air. People caught in a whiteout can quickly become disoriented, losing their sense of direction. This poses an extreme risk to the aviation community when flying at the altitude of the storm or navigating an airport, severe ice accretion on the wings may also result.
he Great Blizzard of 1888 paralyzed the Northeastern United States for several days. In that blizzard, 400 people were killed, 200 ships were sunk, and snowdrifts towered 15 to 50 feet high. Earlier that year, the Great Plains states were struck by the Schoolhouse Blizzard that left children trapped in schoolhouses and killed 235 people.
The Armistice Day Blizzard in 1940 caught many people off guard with its rapid and extreme temperature change. It was 60 °F in the morning, but by noon, it was snowing heavily. Some of those caught unprepared died by freezing to death in the snow and some while trapped in their cars. Altogether, 154 people died in the Armistice Day Blizzard. Unpredictable storms such as this one can come without much warning, causing damage and destruction to humans and infrastructure.
One hundred five years to the day (March 12) after the Great Blizzard of 1888, a massive blizzard, nicknamed the Storm of the Century, hit the U.S in 1993. It dropped snow over 26 states and reached as far north as Canada and as far south as Mexico. In many southern U.S. areas, such as parts of Alabama, more snow fell in this storm than ever fell in an entire winter. Highways and airports were closed across the U.S. As a wider effect, the storm spawned 15 tornadoes in Florida. When the storm was over, it affected at least half of the U.S. population; 270 people died and 48 were reported missing at sea.
Even though some areas are more likely to experience blizzards than others, it is possible for a blizzard to occur in any location where there is snow and high winds. In North America, blizzards are particularly common to the extreme portions of the Northeastern United States, the Northern Great Plains in the United States, Atlantic Canada, and the Canadian Prairie Provinces. Blizzard conditions also occur frequently in the mountain ranges in western North America, however since these regions are sparsely populated they are often not reported.