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Blizzard1 - NOAA.jpg
A blizzard in Goodland, Kansas.
Area of occurrence Temperate and polar regions, high mountains.
SeasonUsually winter.
Effect Power outages, dangerous travel conditions.

A blizzard is a severe snowstorm characterized by strong sustained winds of at least 56 km/h (35 mph) and lasting for a prolonged period of time—typically three hours or more. A ground blizzard is a weather condition where snow is not falling but loose snow on the ground is lifted and blown by strong winds. Blizzards can have an immense size and usually stretch to hundreds or thousands of kilometres.

A winter storm is an event in which varieties of precipitation are formed that only occur at low temperatures, such as snow or sleet, or a rainstorm where ground temperatures are low enough to allow ice to form. In temperate continental climates, these storms are not necessarily restricted to the winter season, but may occur in the late autumn and early spring as well. Very rarely, they may form in summer, though it would have to be an abnormally cold summer, such as the summer of 1816 in the Northeastern United States.

Ground blizzard

Ground blizzard refers to a weather condition where loose snow or ice on the ground is lifted and blown by strong winds. This can occur in the absence of precipitation, and can even occur when the sky is clear. This is in contrast to "ordinary" blizzards, which are accompanied by heavy falling snow. They can be especially dangerous as they occur after a winter storm has passed, when it is assumed that all forms of severe winter weather has ended.


Blizzard into Tochal Skiing resort, Tehran and involved skiers. Tochal sport complex 16.jpg
Blizzard into Tochal Skiing resort, Tehran and involved skiers.

Definition and etymology

In the United States, the National Weather Service defines a blizzard as a severe snow storm characterized by strong winds causing blowing snow that results in low visibilities. The difference between a blizzard and a snowstorm is the strength of the wind, not the amount of snow. To be a blizzard, a snow storm must have sustained winds or frequent gusts that are greater than or equal to 56 km/h (35 mph) with blowing or drifting snow which reduces visibility to 400 m or 0.25 mi or less and must last for a prolonged period of time—typically three hours or more. [1] [2]

National Weather Service United States weather agency

The National Weather Service (NWS) is an agency of the United States federal government that is tasked with providing weather forecasts, warnings of hazardous weather, and other weather-related products to organizations and the public for the purposes of protection, safety, and general information. It is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) branch of the Department of Commerce, and is headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, within the Washington metropolitan area. The agency was known as the United States Weather Bureau from 1890 until it adopted its current name in 1970.

Snow precipitation in the form of flakes of crystalline water ice

Snow refers to forms of ice crystals that precipitate from the atmosphere and undergo changes on the Earth's surface. It pertains to frozen crystalline water throughout its life cycle, starting when, under suitable conditions, the ice crystals form in the atmosphere, increase to millimeter size, precipitate and accumulate on surfaces, then metamorphose in place, and ultimately melt, slide or sublimate away. Snowstorms organize and develop by feeding on sources of atmospheric moisture and cold air. Snowflakes nucleate around particles in the atmosphere by attracting supercooled water droplets, which freeze in hexagonal-shaped crystals. Snowflakes take on a variety of shapes, basic among these are platelets, needles, columns and rime. As snow accumulates into a snowpack, it may blow into drifts. Over time, accumulated snow metamorphoses, by sintering, sublimation and freeze-thaw. Where the climate is cold enough for year-to-year accumulation, a glacier may form. Otherwise, snow typically melts seasonally, causing runoff into streams and rivers and recharging groundwater.

Blowing snow is snow lifted from the surface by the wind, at a height of 8 feet or more, that will reduce visibility. Blowing snow can come from falling snow or snow that already accumulated on the ground but is picked up and blown about by strong winds. It is one of the classic requirements for a blizzard. Its METAR code is BLSN. If the snow remains below 8 feet, it will be called Drifting snow. The snow which is being blown about may deposit as snowdrifts.

While severe cold and large amounts of drifting snow may accompany blizzards, they are not required. Blizzards can bring whiteout conditions, and can paralyze regions for days at a time, particularly where snowfall is unusual or rare.

Snowdrift deposit of snow sculpted by wind into a mound during a snowstorm

A snowdrift is a deposit of snow sculpted by wind into a mound during a snowstorm. Snowdrifts resemble sand dunes and are formed in a similar manner, namely, by wind moving light snow and depositing it when the wind has virtually stopped, usually against a stationary object. Snow normally crests and slopes off toward the surface on the windward side of a large object. On the leeward side, areas near the object are a bit lower than surrounding areas, but are generally flatter.

Whiteout (weather)

Whiteout is a weather condition in which visibility and contrast are severely reduced by snow, fog, or sand. The horizon disappears from view while the sky and landscape appear featureless, leaving no points of visual reference by which to navigate. Whiteout has been defined as: "A condition of diffuse light when no shadows are cast, due to a continuous white cloud layer appearing to merge with the white snow surface. No surface irregularities of the snow are visible, but a dark object may be clearly seen. There is no visible horizon."

A severe blizzard has winds over 72 km/h (45 mph), near zero visibility, and temperatures of −12 °C (10 °F) or lower. [3] In Antarctica, blizzards are associated with winds spilling over the edge of the ice plateau at an average velocity of 160 km/h (99 mph). [3]

Antarctica Polar continent in the Earths southern hemisphere

Antarctica is Earth's southernmost continent. It contains the geographic South Pole and is situated in the Antarctic region of the Southern Hemisphere, almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle, and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. At 14,200,000 square kilometres, it is the fifth-largest continent. For comparison, Antarctica is nearly twice the size of Australia. At 0.00008 people per square kilometre, it is by far the least densely populated continent. About 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice that averages 1.9 km in thickness, which extends to all but the northernmost reaches of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Ground blizzard refers to a weather condition where loose snow or ice on the ground is lifted and blown by strong winds. The primary difference between a ground blizzard as opposed to a regular blizzard is that in a ground blizzard no precipitation is produced at the time, but rather all the precipitation is already present in the form of snow or ice at the surface.

Drifted snow near Burrow-with-Burrow, Lancashire, England, January 1963 Old farm at Overtown in deep snow in 1963.jpg
Drifted snow near Burrow-with-Burrow, Lancashire, England, January 1963

The Australia Bureau of Meteorology describes a blizzard as, "Violent and very cold wind which is laden with snow, some part, at least, of which has been raised from snow covered ground." [4]

Meteorology Interdisciplinary scientific study of the atmosphere focusing on weather forecasting

Meteorology is a branch of the atmospheric sciences which includes atmospheric chemistry and atmospheric physics, with a major focus on weather forecasting. The study of meteorology dates back millennia, though significant progress in meteorology did not occur until the 18th century. The 19th century saw modest progress in the field after weather observation networks were formed across broad regions. Prior attempts at prediction of weather depended on historical data. It was not until after the elucidation of the laws of physics and more particularly, the development of the computer, allowing for the automated solution of a great many equations that model the weather, in the latter half of the 20th century that significant breakthroughs in weather forecasting were achieved. An important domain of weather forecasting is marine weather forecasting as it relates to maritime and coastal safety, in which weather effects also include atmospheric interactions with large bodies of water.

The Oxford English Dictionary concludes the term blizzard is likely onomatopoeic, derived from the same sense as blow, blast, blister, and bluster; the first recorded use of it for weather dates to 1829, when it was defined as a "violent blow". It achieved its modern definition by 1859, when it was in use in the western United States. The term became common in the press during the harsh winter of 1880–81. [5]

United States storm systems

Duluth, Minnesota blizzard, March 2007 Duluth blizzard, December 2007.jpg
Duluth, Minnesota blizzard, March 2007
March blizzard in North Dakota, 1966. Blizzard2 - NOAA.jpg
March blizzard in North Dakota, 1966.

In the United States, storm systems powerful enough to cause blizzards usually form when the jet stream dips far to the south, allowing cold, dry polar air from the north to clash with warm, humid air moving up from the south. [2] [6]

When cold, moist air from the Pacific Ocean moves eastward to the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, and warmer, moist air moves north from the Gulf of Mexico, all that is needed is a movement of cold polar air moving south to form potential blizzard conditions that may extend from the Texas Panhandle to the Great Lakes and Midwest. A blizzard also may be formed when a cold front and warm front mix together and a blizzard forms at the border line.

Another storm system occurs when a cold core low over the Hudson Bay area in Canada is displaced southward over southeastern Canada, the Great Lakes, and New England. When the rapidly moving cold front collides with warmer air coming north from the Gulf of Mexico, strong surface winds, significant cold air advection, and extensive wintry precipitation occur.

Conditions approaching a blizzard whiteout in Minnesota, on March 1, 2007. Note the unclear horizon near the center. Nearwhiteoutinminnesota.JPG
Conditions approaching a blizzard whiteout in Minnesota, on March 1, 2007. Note the unclear horizon near the center.

Low pressure systems moving out of the Rocky Mountains onto the Great Plains, a broad expanse of flat land, much of it covered in prairie, steppe and grassland, can cause thunderstorms and rain to the south and heavy snows and strong winds to the north. With few trees or other obstructions to reduce wind and blowing, this part of the country is particularly vulnerable to blizzards with very low temperatures and whiteout conditions. In a true whiteout there is no visible horizon. People can become lost in their own front yards, when the door is only 3 m (10 ft) away, and they would have to feel their way back. Motorists have to stop their cars where they are, as the road is impossible to see.

Nor'easter blizzards

Illustration of the Great Blizzard of 1888 TotallyFreeImages com-281074-Standard-preview.jpg
Illustration of the Great Blizzard of 1888

A nor'easter is a macro-scale storm that occurs off the New England and Atlantic Canada coastlines. It gets its name from the direction the wind is coming from. The usage of the term in North America comes from the wind associated with many different types of storms some of which can form in the North Atlantic Ocean and some of which form as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. The term is most often used in the coastal areas of New England and Atlantic Canada. This type of storm has characteristics similar to a hurricane. More specifically it describes a low-pressure area whose center of rotation is just off the coast and whose leading winds in the left-forward quadrant rotate onto land from the northeast. High storm waves may sink ships at sea and cause coastal flooding and beach erosion. Notable nor'easters include The Great Blizzard of 1888, one of the worst blizzards in U.S. history. It dropped 100–130 cm (40–50 in) of snow and had sustained winds of more than 45 miles per hour (72 km/h) that produced snowdrifts in excess of 50 feet (15 m). Railroads were shut down and people were confined to their houses for up to a week. It killed 400 people, mostly in New York. [7]

Historic events

1972 Iran blizzard

The 1972 Iran Blizzard, which caused 4,000 reported deaths, was the deadliest blizzard in recorded history. Dropping as much as 26 feet (7.9 m) of snow, it completely covered 200 villages. After a snowfall lasting nearly a week, an area the size of Wisconsin was entirely buried in snow. [8] [9]

The Snow Winter of 1880–1881

A snow blockade in southern Minnesota, central US. On March 29, 1881, snowdrifts in Minnesota were higher than locomotives. Train stuck in snow.jpg
A snow blockade in southern Minnesota, central US. On March 29, 1881, snowdrifts in Minnesota were higher than locomotives.

The winter of 1880–1881 is widely considered the most severe winter ever known in parts of the United States. Many children—and their parents—learned of "The Snow Winter" through the children's book The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in which the author tells of her family's efforts to survive. The snow arrived in October 1880 and blizzard followed blizzard throughout the winter and into March 1881, leaving many areas snowbound throughout the entire winter. Accurate details in Wilder's novel include the blizzards' frequency and the deep cold, the Chicago and North Western Railway stopping trains until the spring thaw because the snow made the tracks impassable, the near-starvation of the townspeople, and the courage of her future husband Almanzo and another man, who ventured out on the open prairie in search of a cache of wheat that no one was even sure existed.

The October blizzard brought snowfalls so deep that two-story homes had snow up to the second floor windows. No one was prepared for the deep snow so early in the season and farmers all over the region were caught before their crops had even been harvested, their grain milled, or with their fuel supplies for the winter in place. By January the train service was almost entirely suspended from the region. Railroads hired scores of men to dig out the tracks but it was a wasted effort: As soon as they had finished shoveling a stretch of line, a new storm arrived, filling up the line and leaving their work useless.

There were no winter thaws and on February 2, 1881, a second massive blizzard struck that lasted for nine days. In the towns the streets were filled with solid drifts to the tops of the buildings and tunneling was needed to secure passage about town. Homes and barns were completely covered, compelling farmers to tunnel to reach and feed their stock.

When the snow finally melted in late spring of 1881, huge sections of the plains were flooded. Massive ice jams clogged the Missouri River and when they broke the downstream areas were ravaged. Most of the town of Yankton, in what is now South Dakota, was washed away when the river overflowed its banks. [10] [11]

The Storm of the Century

Under the weight of snow, a tree falls next to a car in Asheville, North Carolina 1993 Storm of the Century Asheville, North Carolina snowfall.jpg
Under the weight of snow, a tree falls next to a car in Asheville, North Carolina

The Storm of the Century, also known as the Great Blizzard of 1993, was a large cyclonic storm that formed over the Gulf of Mexico on March 12, 1993, and dissipated in the North Atlantic Ocean on March 15. It is unique for its intensity, massive size and wide-reaching effect. At its height, the storm stretched from Canada towards Central America, but its main impact was on the United States and Cuba. The cyclone moved through the Gulf of Mexico, and then through the Eastern United States before moving into Canada. Areas as far south as northern Alabama and Georgia received a dusting of snow and areas such as Birmingham, Alabama, received up to 12 in (30 cm) [12] with hurricane-force wind gusts and record low barometric pressures. Between Louisiana and Cuba, hurricane-force winds produced high storm surges across northwestern Florida, which along with scattered tornadoes killed dozens of people. In the United States, the storm was responsible for the loss of electric power to over 10 million customers. It is purported to have been directly experienced by nearly 40 percent of the country's population at that time. A total of 310 people, including 10 from Cuba, perished during this storm. The storm cost $6 to $10 billion in damages.

List of blizzards

North America

1700 to 1799
1800 to 1850
1851 to 1900
1901 to 1939
1940 to 1949
1950 to 1959
1960 to 1969
1970 to 1979
1980 to 1989
1990 to 1999
2000 to 2009
2010 to 2018


United Kingdom

Other locations

See also

Related Research Articles

Panhandle hook

A panhandle hook is a relatively infrequent winter storm system whose cyclogenesis occurs in the South to southwestern United States from the late fall through winter and into the early spring months. They trek to the northeast on a path towards the Great Lakes region, as the southwesterly jet streams are most prevalent, usually affecting the Midwestern United States and Eastern Canada. Panhandle hooks account for some of the most memorable and deadly blizzards and snowstorms in North America. The name is derived from the region of surface cyclogenesis in the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma panhandle regions. In some winters, there are no panhandle hook storms; in others, there are several.

North American blizzard of 1996 January 1996 blizzard in North America

The Blizzard of 1996 was a severe nor'easter that paralyzed the United States East Coast with up to 4 feet (1.2 m) of wind-driven snow from January 6 to January 8, 1996. This storm was a classic example of a nor'easter, but the storm would not have been as historically significant without the presence of the arctic high pressure system located to the north of New York. It was followed by another storm, an Alberta Clipper, on January 12, then unusually warm weather and torrential rain which caused rapid melting and river flooding. Along with the March Superstorm of 1993, it is one of only two snowstorms to receive the top rating of 5, or "Extreme", on the Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale (NESIS).

The Great Snow of 1717 was a series of snowstorms between February 27 and March 7, 1717 that blanketed the colony of Virginia and the New England colonies with five or more feet of snow, and much higher drifts. Snowfall may have occurred elsewhere, but settler population was sparse outside of New England at that time. The Great Snow is considered one of the benchmark storms in New England, often compared to the Great Blizzard of 1888 in severity.

December 2009 North American blizzard

The December 2009 North American blizzard was a powerful nor'easter that formed over the Gulf of Mexico in December 2009, and became a major snowstorm that affected the East Coast of the United States and Canadian Atlantic provinces. The snowstorm brought record-breaking December snowfall totals to Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

2009 North American Christmas blizzard

The 2009 North American Christmas blizzard was a powerful winter storm and severe weather event that affected the Midwestern United States, Great Plains, Southeastern United States, the Eastern Seaboard, and parts of Ontario. The storm began to develop on December 22 before intensifying to produce extreme winds and precipitation by the morning of December 24. The storm's rapid development made it difficult for forecasters to predict. The blizzard was reported to have claimed at least 21 lives, and disrupted air travel during the Christmas travel season. In the Southeastern and Central United States, there were 27 reported tornadoes on December 23–24. The storm, a Category 5 "Extreme" one on the Regional Snowfall Index, was the first winter weather event to rank as such since the Blizzard of '96.

The Great Blizzard of 1947 was a record-breaking snowfall that began on Christmas without prediction and brought the northeastern United States to a standstill. The snowstorm was described as the worst blizzard after 1888. The storm was not accompanied by high winds, but the snow fell silently and steadily. By the time it stopped on December 26, measurement of the snowfall reached 26.4 inches in Central Park in Manhattan. Meteorological records indicate that warm moisture arising from the Gulf Stream fed the storm's energy when it encountered its cold air and greatly increased the precipitation. Automobiles and buses were stranded in the streets, subway service was halted, and parked vehicles initially buried by the snowfall were blocked further by packed mounds created by snow plows once they were able to begin operation. Once trains resumed running, they ran twelve hours late. Seventy-seven deaths are attributed to the blizzard.

March 18–20, 1956 noreaster

The March 18–20, 1956 nor'easter was a significant winter storm in the United States that affected the Mid-Atlantic States and southern New England. The storm ranked as Category 1, or "notable", on the Northeast Snowfall Impact Scale. A high-pressure area north of New York State, developing in the wake of another system on March 15–16, provided cold air for the snowfall. It was among a series of snowstorms to affect the region during the month.

December 1960 noreaster

The December 1960 nor'easter was a significant early-season winter storm that impacted the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions of the United States. Moderate to heavy snowfall fell from West Virginia to eastern Maine, amounting to 10 in (25 cm) or more in parts of 13 states and peaking at 21.4 in (54.4 cm) at Newark, New Jersey. The storm was accompanied by strong winds, gusting to over 90 mph (145 km/h) in coastal New England, and left in its wake a dangerously cold air mass. The storm originated in a weak low pressure area which formed over the western Gulf of Mexico on December 10. A secondary low developed over South Carolina on the next day, supported by the merger of two troughs aloft. Sliding southeast of New England, the new storm explosively deepened to become a full-fledged nor'easter, with a minimum central air pressure of 966 mbar. It began to weaken over the Canadian Maritimes.

Global storm activity of 2006 profiles the major worldwide storms, including blizzards, ice storms, and other winter events, from January 1, 2006 to December 31, 2006. Winter storms are events in which the dominant varieties of precipitation are forms that only occur at cold temperatures, such as snow or sleet, or a rainstorm where ground temperatures are cold enough to allow ice to form. It may be marked by strong wind, thunder and lightning, heavy precipitation, such as ice, or wind transporting some substance through the atmosphere. Other major non winter events such as large dust storms, Hurricanes, cyclones, tornados, gales, flooding and rainstorms are also caused by such phenomena to a lesser or greater existent.

December 1969 noreaster

The December 1969 nor'easter was a strong winter storm that mainly affected the Northeastern United States and southern Quebec between December 25 and December 28, 1969. The multi-faceted storm system included a tornado outbreak, record snow accumulations, a damaging ice storm, and flooding rains.

March 2013 noreaster

The March 2013 nor'easter was a powerful nor'easter that affected much of the United States, most notably New England. On March 6, the system moved into the Mid-Atlantic region of the east coast, and intensified into a nor'easter, dumping up to 3 feet of snow in some places. By late March 6, 2013, the nor'easter had knocked out power to about 250,000 homes and businesses.

2015–16 North American winter

The 2015–16 North American winter refers to winter in North America as it occurred across the continent from late 2015 through early 2016. Contrary to the past two winters, the United States experienced warmer conditions, mainly due to a strong El Niño. However, despite the warmth, significant weather systems still occurred, including a a snowstorm and flash flooding in Texas at the end of December and a large tornado outbreak at the end of February. The main event of the winter was when a crippling and historic blizzard struck the Northeast in late January, dumping up to 3 feet of snow in and around the metropolitan areas.

January 2014 North American blizzard

The January 2014 North American blizzard was a fast-moving but disruptive blizzard that moved through the Northeast, mainly the Mid-Atlantic states, dumping up to 1 foot (30 cm) in areas around the New York City area. The storm also brought cold temperatures behind it, similar to a snowstorm earlier that month.

2012–13 North American winter

The 2012–13 North American winter refers to winter in North America as it occurred across the continent from late 2012 through early 2013. The season started out somewhat early, as the remnants of Hurricane Sandy brought heavy snow to the mountains of West Virginia in late October. Later, a strong nor'easter affected the weary Northeast, hampering storm recovery efforts and dropping several inches of snow. The rest of the winter featured several other notable events, such as a Christmas winter storm that affected most of the eastern part of the country, and the most notable event occurring in early February, when a powerful blizzard struck the Northeast and bringing record snow to some areas. During the winter, a weak El Nino was expected to influence weather conditions across the continent.

2009–10 North American winter

The 2009-10 North American winter season started in late 2009 and ended in mid-2010.

2010–11 North American winter

The 2010–11 North American winter season started in late 2010 and ended in mid-2011.

2016–17 North American winter

The 2016–17 North American winter refers to winter in North America as it occurred across the continent from late 2016 through early 2017. During the winter, a weak La Niña was expected to influence weather conditions across the continent. Several notable events occurred during the season, including a potent winter storm that affected the East Coast of the United States in early January, the second-largest winter tornado outbreak on record later that month, and an unusually warm February. In addition, towards the end of the season, a large cyclonic storm system that caused a large tornado outbreak, flooding, and a potent blizzard in the heart of the country. However, the most notable event of the winter was a powerful blizzard that impacted the Northeast and New England in mid-March, towards the end of the season.

2017–18 North American winter

The 2017–18 North American winter refers to winter in North America as it occurred across the continent from late 2017 through early 2018. Similar to the previous winter, a La Niña was expected to influence the winter weather across North America. Winter weather patterns were very active, erratic, and protracted, especially near the end of the season. Significant events included rare snowfall in the South, a strong cold wave that affected the United States during the early weeks of January, and a series of strong nor'easters that affected the Northeastern U.S during the month of March. In addition, flooding also took place during the month of February in the Central United States. Finally the winter came to a conclusion with a powerful storm system that caused a tornado outbreak and flooding in mid-April. The most intense event, however, was an extremely powerful cyclonic blizzard that impacted the northeastern United States in the first week of 2018.

2018–19 North American winter

The 2018–19 North American winter was winter in North America as it was occurring across the continent from late 2018 through early 2019. Notable events have included snow in the Southeast in December, a strong cold wave and several major winter storms in the Midwest, Northeast and much of Canada late January and early February, record snowstorms in the Southwest late February, two nor'easters that affected the east coast early March, deadly tornado outbreaks in the Southeast, collapsing buildings in Quebec, a historic mid-April blizzard in the Midwest, but the most notable event all season was a record-breaking bomb cyclone that affected much of North America mid March. Unlike previous winters, a developing El Niño was expected to influence weather patterns across North America.


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