As the weather turns colder the chance of a snowstorm increases. Cold polar or arctic air masses begin to move down from the north, encountering the warmer masses in the south. Where two opposing systems meet is a prime breeding ground for snowstorms. The systems, as they collide, usually create relatively small, localized storms, but can also produce snowstorms that cover thousands of miles. When conditions are right, these storms can hit hard, covering roads, cars, and homes in ice and snow.
When the main precipitation of a winter storm is snow, then the storm is classified as a snowstorm. Sometimes a snowstorm is called a blizzard, but the two are not necessarily the same thing. Blizzards are a severe type of snowstorm. The real difference lies in the intensity of the storm. Typically, blizzards have wind speeds in excess of 35 mph, reduced visibility to 400 meters or less, and last for more than three hours. If one or more of these factors is not met, the weather pattern is more accurately described as a snowstorm.
It is also important to note that blizzards are not always accompanied by snowfall. A blizzard can occur when a strong wind kicks up enough snow to affect visibility for a prolonged period of time. A snowstorm, in contrast, is usually associated by heavy snowfall. Basically, not all blizzards are snowstorms, and not all snowstorms are blizzards.
Snowstorms are formed when a high pressure system, sometimes called a ‘ridge,’ comes into contact with a low pressure system. As the systems collide, the high pressure system begins blowing towards the low pressure areas in an attempt to equalize pressure. Low pressure air typically has high moisture content. Clouds are formed as the warmer air rises, replaced by the colder air below. Precipitation occurs, and because the temperature in the winter tends to be cold, this precipitation takes the form of snow. The power of the two systems and the winds resulting from their collision determines the extent and severity of the snowstorm.
Snowstorms are usually accompanied by heavy snowfall, and so require a source of moisture. Most of the areas that are prone to snowstorms, such as areas of New York, Michigan, and Alaska, are located close to bodies of water. This is because the water provides ample moisture for the storm systems to pick up. This moisture will later be deposited as snow during the storm. Storms which originate over bodies of water tend to be greater in intensity and last longer than other storm systems.
Snowstorms can cause a great many problems for anyone caught in them. They can strand passengers at airports, close roads, and sometimes leave people on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck. Since snowstorms are often accompanied by extremely low temperatures, power lines can collect ice, even snapping in some cases. This can lead to power outages, some of which can last for days.
In extreme cases, people can lose their lives during a snowstorm. Getting caught in heavy snow, freezing temperatures, and dangerously high winds can induce hypothermia and frostbite. Untreated, either of these conditions can lead to death. During a snowstorm, the best course of action is to stay home, keep warm, and wait it out. Travel during a snowstorm or blizzard is not advisable.
Snowstorms, and especially blizzards, can be dangerous and are unpredictable. Often apparently springing out of seemingly nowhere, snowstorms can cause harm to people, animals, and property.