Winter brings many things. Colder weather chills you to the bone. Icy roads cause you to slip and slid. And winter storms bring a halt to travel. Colder air descends from the north, collides with warmer air from the south, and a storm system is created. This storm system often brings snow, high winds, and reduced visibility. This storm system may produce blizzards or snowstorms. But what is the difference between these two weather patterns?
On the surface, snowstorms and blizzards seems very much the same. Often the two words are used interchangeably, almost as if there is no difference between them. However, the two phenomena are not the same; not all snowstorms are blizzards, and not all blizzards are snowstorms.
Snowstorms are typically defined as storms that include a large amount of snowfall. Generally, if two inches of snow fall in a relatively short period of time, then a snowfall becomes a snowstorm. There may be little or no wind during this storm, and it is possible that visibility will be unaffected. However, snowstorms almost always mean a disruption of driving conditions.
Blizzards are something else entirely. Though it is sometimes said that the only difference between a blizzard and a snowstorm is the wind speed, this is not entirely correct. You can, in fact, have a blizzard without any snow falling. In simple terms, a snowstorm must have a minimum wind speed of 35 mph, creating blowing or drifting snow. This blowing snow must reduce visibility to approximately 400 meters, and this whiteout condition must last for at least 3 hours. If any of these factors are missing, the storm is more accurately referred to as a snowstorm.
Snow does not constitute a blizzard. Snow doesn’t even necessarily mean that it’s a snowstorm. Lightly falling snow is more accurately referred to as a snowfall, not a snowstorm. However, winds can turn a snowfall into a blizzard. Though these three terms are certainly connected, they do not describe the same weather pattern.
In regions prone to avalanches, a snowstorm can increase the risk of this threat. If you are located in an area that experiences the occasional avalanche, you should be constantly aware of your surroundings. Listen to the radio for any particular weather warnings, and be prepared. A snowstorm or blizzard may result in being ‘snowed in’ and unable to travel. You should have an ample supply of water, food, and first aid supplies, as well as a source of heat that does not require power (in case of a power outage). If the weather takes a turn for the worse, err on the side of caution and wait it out.