Snow storms (often called blizzards by the general public), are defined by the National Weather Service as winter storms which bring forth sustained or gusting winds of 35mph which produces blowing or drifting snow which reduces visibility to ¼ mile or less for a period of three hours or more. Whilst snow storms are the technical words for this type of weather pattern, a myriad of people consider any sustained snowstorm which is accompanied by strong winds a blizzard.
Thus, the varied difference in title for these weather episodes. Snow storms (as shall be referred to in this article), are usually, yet not always, accompanied by extremely low temperatures. True blizzards are not just heavy snowstorms. The word ‘blizzard’ which is used within the United States, refers to snowstorms which are accompanied by very strong, cold winds, which whips the snow into fine dust particles. Blizzards do not always bring heavy snow fall. In fact, many bring less snow than what is deemed an average snowfall.
Snow storms occur when a mass of extremely cold air moves away from the polar regions. This collides with a mass of warm air, the warm air rises rapidly and the cold air cuts beneath it. This causes a large cloud bank to form which leads to heavy snowfall. Yet snow will only fall from this cloud if the temperature of the air which is between the base of the cloud and the ground is lower than 40ºF. Higher temperatures will melt the snowflakes as they fall through the air. This will then turn to sleet or rain.
The snowflakes form when ice crystals collide in clouds and adhere to each other. The varied shapes of the snowflakes are caused through the diversity of weather conditions in which they are being produced. The National Weather Service says that an average of 105 snow producing storms occur in the United States annually. The majority of these last for two to five days and bring snow from several states with them. Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan is deemed the snowiest city in all of the United States, with an average of 117 inches (297cm) of snow per year. The second snowiest area in the United States is Juneau, Alaska with an average of 99 inches (251cm). Buffalo, New York comes in third, with 92 inches (234cm).
The reason Buffalo and other cities in Upstate New York always seem to get so much snow is because of New York’s proximity to the Great Lakes. Those huge expanses of open water are said to provide ample moisture for snow to develop in the area. The cold arctic wind blows over the lakes and brings precipitation with it. This abnormality is often referred to as ‘lake-effect snow’. There have been a host of horrific storms documented over the centuries.
Back in the year of 1717, the earliest European settler colonies faced the ferocity of a snowstorm which hit the eastern seaboard. This was deemed the ‘Great Snow’. Three to four feet of snow fell as harsh winds whipped themselves into twenty five foot drifts. Later in the nineteenth century, the settlement had branched westward. They were then exposed to the heavy snow and howling winds of the prairie and open plains areas. It is said that heavy snow frequently interfered with the railroads.
When brutal snow storms continued for a good length of time, food and fuel shortages developed. Unfortunately fires were a regular occurrence due to stoves being overworked. Water lines froze and prevented the putting out of many of these fires. Snowstorms fell phone lines, telegraph and electricity lines. Snow and ice placed suspension bridges at serious risk. They could collapse under the weight of the snow and ice at any time.
Intense snowstorms racked the nation through the 19th century. In October of 1846 a horrid snowstorm struck northern California. It lasted for eight days and resulted in forty foot drifts over Truckee Pass. This trapped the Donner Party of eighty seven on the mountain. When April arrived of that same year, only forty seven people survived. Unfortunately cannibalism was reported there and elsewhere during the horrific snow storms. Especially in the isolated western regions. It was deemed the survival of the fittest.
The Great Plains has suffered as well. In 1873 during a major snowstorm which killed seventy people. Yet death was not the only thing it left in its destructive wake, the railroad was paralysed for the duration of the winter. Later, in January of 1888 the Great Plains was struck by a snowstorm with extremely deep snow and rapidly dropping temperatures. In as little as 18 hours, the temperature dropped sixty degrees. The 200 dead were children attempting to make their way home from school.
The horror did not end there. Later that very same year, what was called the ‘Blizzard of ‘88 arrived’. This specific storm was said to be so huge in size and so ferocious. It ripped through the Chesapeake Bay right to Nantucket and damaged or destroyed 200 ships. From March 10 through to March 14, the eastern seaboard was slammed with one of the worst snow storms imagined. The region was pummelled with two to four feet of snow over a period of three days. 70 mph winds accompanied freezing winds across the whole of New York City.
Drifting to more than twenty feet deep, covering first floors of apartments, office blocks and structures, it left destruction in its wake. People were trapped everywhere, in trains, offices, cars, stores, houses. Over in Massachusetts and Connecticut, forty to fifty inches of snow caused diffs of up to fifty feet. Trains houses, school etc were buried and at the very end of the storm more heartache was to come. Over 400 people had been killed.
Later in the 20th century, technology was helping people learn more about snowstorms and how to deal with their consequences. Telephones and telegraphs were soon reporting approaching snowstorms, soon sophist aced weather tracking was available. Warning systems were set in place. Yet this made little difference to the situation when the ‘Knickerbocker Storm’ arrived in Washington, D.C., from 27th to the 29th January 1922. The Knickerbocker Storm buffeted the city, made the Knickerbocker theatre roof collapse and left almost two feet of snow behind. Almost 100 who were inside the theatre at the time, were killed.
Moving away from historical snow storms, Nor’easters are very similar to blizzards, but the Nor’easter’s direction of travel is from the Southern United States, while the winds come from the Northeast. Nor’easters occur at any time of the year but this type of snow storm tends to occur more often during the Winter months. They bring hurricane type of winds with them, freezing rain, snow, sleet and freezing air right out of the Arctic. They cause major hazards to human lives.
Snow is magical, picturesque and true eye-candy. Waking up in the morning to see snow capped mountains and trees weighted down with snow can be delightful indeed. However, snowstorms or blizzards can be dangerous. Blinding snow and howling winds can disorientate travellers and make navigation a horrific life threatening event.