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Thundersnow formation with an occluded front Occludedfront.gif
Thundersnow formation with an occluded front

Thundersnow, also known as a winter thunderstorm or a thundersnowstorm, is an unusual [1] [2] kind of thunderstorm with snow falling as the primary precipitation instead of rain. It typically falls in regions of strong upward motion within the cold sector of an extratropical cyclone. Thermodynamically, it is not different from any other type of thunderstorm, but the top of the cumulonimbus cloud is usually quite low. In addition to snow, graupel or hail may fall.

Thunderstorm type of weather

A thunderstorm, also known as an electrical storm or a lightning storm, is a storm characterized by the presence of lightning and its acoustic effect on the Earth's atmosphere, known as thunder. Relatively weak thunderstorms are sometimes called thundershowers. Thunderstorms occur in a type of cloud known as a cumulonimbus. They are usually accompanied by strong winds, and often produce heavy rain and sometimes snow, sleet, or hail, but some thunderstorms produce little precipitation or no precipitation at all. Thunderstorms may line up in a series or become a rainband, known as a squall line. Strong or severe thunderstorms include some of the most dangerous weather phenomena, including large hail, strong winds, and tornadoes. Some of the most persistent severe thunderstorms, known as supercells, rotate as do cyclones. While most thunderstorms move with the mean wind flow through the layer of the troposphere that they occupy, vertical wind shear sometimes causes a deviation in their course at a right angle to the wind shear direction.

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.

Rain liquid water in the form of droplets that have condensed from atmospheric water vapor and then precipitated

Rain is liquid water in the form of droplets that have condensed from atmospheric water vapor and then become heavy enough to fall under gravity. Rain is a major component of the water cycle and is responsible for depositing most of the fresh water on the Earth. It provides suitable conditions for many types of ecosystems, as well as water for hydroelectric power plants and crop irrigation.



Thundersnow, while relatively rare anywhere, is more common with lake-effect snow in the Great Lakes area of the United States and Canada, the midwestern United States, and the Great Salt Lake. Thundersnow also occurs in Halifax, Nova Scotia, sometimes several times per winter season. Bozeman, Montana also sees thundersnow more often than average with these storms typically occurring in April or May. In the United States, March is the peak month of formation; on average, only 6.4 events are reported per year. [3]

Lake-effect snow

Lake-effect snow is produced during cooler atmospheric conditions when a cold air mass moves across long expanses of warmer lake water, warming the lower layer of air which picks up water vapor from the lake, rises up through the colder air above, freezes and is deposited on the leeward (downwind) shores.

Great Lakes lakes in North America

The Great Lakes, also called the Laurentian Great Lakes and the Great Lakes of North America, are a series of interconnected freshwater lakes primarily in the upper mid-east region of North America, on the Canada–United States border, which connect to the Atlantic Ocean through the Saint Lawrence River. They consist of Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, although hydrologically, there are four lakes, Superior, Erie, Ontario, and Michigan-Huron. The connected lakes form the Great Lakes Waterway.

Great Salt Lake salt lake in Utah, United States

The Great Salt Lake, located in the northern part of the U.S. state of Utah, is the largest salt water lake in the Western Hemisphere, and the eighth-largest terminal lake in the world. In an average year the lake covers an area of around 1,700 square miles (4,400 km2), but the lake's size fluctuates substantially due to its shallowness. For instance, in 1963 it reached its lowest recorded size at 950 square miles (2,460 km²), but in 1988 the surface area was at the historic high of 3,300 square miles (8,500 km2). In terms of surface area, it is the largest lake in the United States that is not part of the Great Lakes region.

The British Isles and other parts of northwestern Europe occasionally report thunder and lightning during sleet or (usually wet) snow showers during winter and spring. It is also common around Kanazawa and the Sea of Japan, and even around Mount Everest. Low-pressure events in the eastern Mediterranean that originate from polar origin cause copious thundersnow occurrences during winter storms, especially over the elevated provinces of Israel and Jordan, including Amman and Jerusalem. When such storms happen at areas intended for skiing, the mountains are often evacuated for safety.

Sea of Japan Marginal sea between Japan, Russia and Korea

The Sea of Japan is the marginal sea between the Japanese archipelago, Sakhalin, the Korean Peninsula and Russia. The Japanese archipelago separates the sea from the Pacific Ocean. It is bordered by Japan, Korea and Russia. Like the Mediterranean Sea, it has almost no tides due to its nearly complete enclosure from the Pacific Ocean. This isolation also reflects in the fauna species and in the water salinity, which is lower than in the ocean. The sea has no large islands, bays or capes. Its water balance is mostly determined by the inflow and outflow through the straits connecting it to the neighboring seas and Pacific Ocean. Few rivers discharge into the sea and their total contribution to the water exchange is within 1%.

Mount Everest Earths highest mountain, part of the Himalaya between Nepal and China

Mount Everest, known in Nepali as Sagarmatha (सगरमाथा) and in Tibetan as Chomolungma (ཇོ་མོ་གླང་མ), is Earth's highest mountain above sea level, located in the Mahalangur Himal sub-range of the Himalayas. The international border between Nepal and China runs across its summit point.

Israel country in the Middle East

Israel, officially the State of Israel, is a country in Western Asia, located on the southeastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea and the northern shore of the Red Sea. It has land borders with Lebanon to the north, Syria to the northeast, Jordan on the east, the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the east and west, respectively, and Egypt to the southwest. The country contains geographically diverse features within its relatively small area. Israel's economic and technological center is Tel Aviv, while its seat of government and proclaimed capital is Jerusalem, although the state's sovereignty over Jerusalem has only partial recognition.

Acoustic effects

One unique aspect of thundersnow is that the suspended and deposited snowfall act as an acoustic suppressor of the sound of thunder. The thunder from a typical thunderstorm can be heard many miles away, while the thunder from thundersnow can usually only be heard within a 2–3-mile (3.2–4.8 km) radius from the lightning.[ citation needed ]


There are usually three causes of thundersnow:

Weather front boundary separating two masses of air of different densities

A weather front is a boundary separating two masses of air of different densities, and is the principal cause of meteorological phenomena outside the tropics. In surface weather analyses, fronts are depicted using various colored triangles and half-circles, depending on the type of front. The air masses separated by a front usually differ in temperature and humidity.

Warm front

A warm front is a density discontinuity located at the leading edge of a homogeneous warm air mass, and is typically located on the equator-facing edge of an isotherm gradient. Warm fronts lie within broader troughs of low pressure than cold fronts, and move more slowly than the cold fronts which usually follow because cold air is denser and less easy to remove from the Earth's surface. This also forces temperature differences across warm fronts to be broader in scale. Clouds ahead of the warm front are mostly stratiform, and rainfall gradually increases as the front approaches. Fog can also occur preceding a warm frontal passage. Clearing and warming is usually rapid after frontal passage. If the warm air mass is unstable, thunderstorms may be embedded among the stratiform clouds ahead of the front, and after frontal passage thundershowers may continue. On weather maps, the surface location of a warm front is marked with a red line of semicircles pointing in the direction of travel.

The synoptic scale in meteorology is a horizontal length scale of the order of 1000 kilometers or more. This corresponds to a horizontal scale typical of mid-latitude depressions. Most high and low-pressure areas seen on weather maps such as surface weather analyses are synoptic-scale systems, driven by the location of Rossby waves in their respective hemisphere. Low-pressure areas and their related frontal zones occur on the leading edge of a trough within the Rossby wave pattern, while high-pressure areas form on the back edge of the trough. Most precipitation areas occur near frontal zones. The word synoptic is derived from the Greek word συνοπτικός, meaning seen together.

Lake effect precipitation

A large squall producing heavy snow and frequent lightning over Buffalo, NY. October 12-13 radarloop kbuf.gif
A large squall producing heavy snow and frequent lightning over Buffalo, NY.

Lake effect thundersnow occurs after a cold front or shortwave aloft passes over a body of water. This steepens the thermal lapse rates between the lake temperature and the temperatures aloft. A difference in temperature of 25 °C (45 °F) or more between the lake temperature and the temperature at about 1,500 m (4,900 ft) (the 850 hPa level) usually marks the onset of thundersnow, if surface temperatures are expected to be below freezing. However several factors, including other geographical elements, affect the development of thundersnow.

Shortwave (meteorology) meteorology

A shortwave or shortwave trough is an embedded kink in the trough / ridge pattern. Its length scale is much smaller than that of longwaves, which are responsible for the largest scale weather systems. Shortwaves may be contained within or found ahead of longwaves and range from the mesoscale to the synoptic scale. Shortwaves are most frequently caused by either a cold pool or an upper level front.

The lapse rate is the rate at which an atmospheric variable, normally temperature in Earth's atmosphere, changes with altitude. Lapse rate arises from the word lapse, in the sense of a gradual change. It corresponds to the vertical component of the spatial gradient of temperature. Although this concept is most often applied to the Earth's troposphere, it can be extended to any gravitationally supported parcel of gas.

The primary factor is convective depth. This is the vertical depth in the troposphere that a parcel of air will rise from the ground before it reaches the equilibrium (EQL) level and stops rising. A minimum depth of 1,500 m (4,900 ft) is necessary, and an average depth of 3,000 m (9,800 ft) or more is generally accepted as sufficient. Wind shear is also a significant factor. Linear snow squall bands produce more thundersnow than clustered bands; thus a directional wind shear with a change of less than 12 °C (54 °F) between the ground and 2,000 m (6,600 ft) in height must be in place. However, any change in direction greater than 12 °C (54 °F) through that layer will tear the snow squall apart. A bare minimum fetch of 50 km/h (31 mph) is required so that the air passing over the lake or ocean water will become sufficiently saturated with moisture and will acquire thermal energy from the water.

The last component is the echo top or storm top temperature. This must be at least −30 °C (−22 °F). It is generally accepted that at this temperature there is no longer any super cooled water vapour present in a cloud, but just ice crystals suspended in the air. This allows for the interaction of the ice cloud and graupel pellets within the storm to generate a charge, resulting in lightning and thunder. [4]

Synoptic forcing

Synoptic snow storms tend to be large and complex, with many possible factors affecting the development of thundersnow. The best location in a storm to find thundersnow is typically in its NorthWest quadrant (in the Northern Hemisphere, based on observations in the Midwestern United States), within what is known as the "comma head" of a mature extratropical cyclone. [5] [6] Thundersnow can also be located underneath the TROWAL, a trough of warm air aloft which shows up in a surface weather analysis as an inverted trough extending backward into the cold sector from the main cyclone. [7] In extreme cases, thunderstorms along the cold front are transported towards the center of the low-pressure system and will have their precipitation change to snow or ice, once the cold front becomes a portion of the occluded front. [6] The 1991 Halloween blizzard, Superstorm of 1993, and White Juan are examples of such blizzards featuring thundersnow.Thunder is also there.

Upslope flow

Similar to the lake effect regime, thundersnow is usually witnessed in terrain in the cold sector of an extratropical cyclone when a shortwave aloft moves into the region. The shortwave will steepen the local lapse rates, allowing for a greater possibility of both heavy snow at elevations where it is near or below freezing, and occasionally thundersnow. [8]


Thundersnow produces heavy snowfall rates in the range of 5 to 10 cm (2 to 4 in) per hour. Snowfall of this intensity may limit visibilities severely, even during light wind conditions. However, thundersnow is often a part of a severe winter storm or blizzard. Winds of above tropical storm force are frequent with thundersnow. As a result, visibilities in thundersnow are frequently under 400 m (14 mi). Additionally, such wind creates extreme wind chills and may result in frostbite. Finally, there is a greater likelihood that thundersnow lightning will have a positive polarity, which is associated with a greater destructive potential than the more common negatively-charged lightning. [9]

See also

Related Research Articles

Blizzard type of snowstorm

A blizzard is a severe snowstorm characterized by strong sustained winds of at least 35 mph (56 km/h) 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.

Squall sudden, sharp increase in the sustained winds over a short time interval

A squall is a sudden, sharp increase in wind speed lasting minutes, contrary to a wind gust lasting seconds. They are usually associated with active weather, such as rain showers, thunderstorms, or heavy snow. Squalls refer to the increase to the sustained winds over that time interval, as there may be higher gusts during a squall event. They usually occur in a region of strong sinking air or cooling in the mid-atmosphere. These force strong localized upward motions at the leading edge of the region of cooling, which then enhances local downward motions just in its wake.

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.

Alberta clipper storm system common to North America

An Alberta-clipper is a fast moving low pressure area weather system which generally affects the central provinces of Canada, as well as parts of the Upper Midwest, Great Lakes, and Northeastern United States regions, precipitating a sudden temperature drop and sharp winds. Alberta clippers take their name from Alberta, the province from which they appear to descend, and from clipper ships of the 19th century, one of the fastest ships of that time.

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.

2004 Christmas Eve United States winter storm

The 2004 Christmas Eve United States winter storm was a rare weather event that took place in Louisiana and Texas in the United States on December 24, 2004, before the storm moved northeast to affect the coastal sections of the Mid-Atlantic states and New England in the succeeding few days. This was a different storm from the historic event that struck the Midwest and southern Canada around December 23 from another cyclone which preceded this storm. The event involved a thin band of snowfall with unusually cold temperatures for the middle Texas coast, and caused dozens of varied weather records to be shattered. It was the most significant snow for the Texas Gulf Coast, and deep South Texas, since February 1895.


A rainband is a cloud and precipitation structure associated with an area of rainfall which is significantly elongated. Rainbands can be stratiform or convective, and are generated by differences in temperature. When noted on weather radar imagery, this precipitation elongation is referred to as banded structure. Rainbands within tropical cyclones are curved in orientation. Tropical cyclone rainbands contain showers and thunderstorms that, together with the eyewall and the eye, constitute a hurricane or tropical storm. The extent of rainbands around a tropical cyclone can help determine the cyclone's intensity.

Mesoscale convective system complex of thunderstorms organized on a larger scale

A mesoscale convective system (MCS) is a complex of thunderstorms that becomes organized on a scale larger than the individual thunderstorms but smaller than extratropical cyclones, and normally persists for several hours or more. A mesoscale convective system's overall cloud and precipitation pattern may be round or linear in shape, and include weather systems such as tropical cyclones, squall lines, lake-effect snow events, polar lows, and Mesoscale Convective Complexes (MCCs), and generally form near weather fronts. The type that forms during the warm season over land has been noted across North America, Europe, and Asia, with a maximum in activity noted during the late afternoon and evening hours.

Snowsquall Various forms of snowsqualls

A snowsquall is a sudden moderately heavy snow fall with blowing snow and strong, gusty surface winds. It is often referred to as a whiteout and is similar to a blizzard but is localized in time or in location and snow accumulations may or may not be significant.

Extratropical cyclone type of cyclone

Extratropical cyclones, sometimes called mid-latitude cyclones or wave cyclones, are low-pressure areas which, along with the anticyclones of high-pressure areas, drive the weather over much of the Earth. Extratropical cyclones are capable of producing anything from cloudiness and mild showers to heavy gales, thunderstorms, blizzards, and tornadoes. These types of cyclones are defined as large scale (synoptic) low pressure weather systems that occur in the middle latitudes of the Earth. In contrast with tropical cyclones, extratropical cyclones produce rapid changes in temperature and dew point along broad lines, called weather fronts, about the center of the cyclone.

The Early Winter 2006 North American storm complex was a severe winter storm that occurred on November 26, 2006, and continued into December 1. It affected much of North America in some form, producing all kinds of severe weather including a major ice storm, blizzard conditions, high winds, extreme cold, a serial derecho and some tornadoes.

Severe weather

Severe weather refers to any dangerous meteorological phenomena with the potential to cause damage, serious social disruption, or loss of human life. Types of severe weather phenomena vary, depending on the latitude, altitude, topography, and atmospheric conditions. High winds, hail, excessive precipitation, and wildfires are forms and effects of severe weather, as are thunderstorms, downbursts, tornadoes, waterspouts, tropical cyclones, and extratropical cyclones. Regional and seasonal severe weather phenomena include blizzards (snowstorms), ice storms, and duststorms.

Cold front leading edge of a cooler mass of air

A cold front is the leading edge of a cooler mass of air, replacing at ground level a warmer mass of air, which lies within a fairly sharp surface trough of low pressure. It forms in the wake of an extratropical cyclone, at the leading edge of its cold air advection pattern, which is also known as the cyclone's dry conveyor belt circulation. Temperature changes across the boundary can exceed 30 °C (54 °F). When enough moisture is present, rain can occur along the boundary. If there is significant instability along the boundary, a narrow line of thunderstorms can form along the frontal zone. If instability is less, a broad shield of rain can move in behind the front, which increases the temperature difference across the boundary. Cold fronts are stronger in the fall and spring transition seasons and weakest during the summer.

The December 2009 Midwest blizzard was a powerful extratropical cyclone which was of a category which meteorologists refer to as a cyclogenic bomb, a system which shows a drop in central pressure similar to the Rapid Intensification Cycle of a tropical cyclone, more than 1 mbar per hour for 12 to 24 hours or more. A sustained drop averaging more than 2.5 mbar/hr is termed explosive deepening/intensification, and this was the case with this rapidly deepening and intensifying storm as it traversed the Midwest and Ontario and on to Québec, Greenland and vicinity. In many locations wind, snowfall, and precipitation moisture content records dating back to the December 2, 1990 storm, the 1976-1978 period, the 1949 blizzard, or even further back were broken, with barometric pressure records falling as well. Both the central pressure (depth) and rate of change and differential over a given distance (intensity) were remarkable, and both caused hurricane-force winds in places.

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.

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.

Late March 2016 North American blizzard

At the start of spring 2016, a major winter storm moved through the High Plains and Midwest, bringing blizzard conditions with snowfall of up to 12–18 inches (30–46 cm) and strong winds as well. Snowstorms like this are typical in these areas at this time of year. The system also brought with it a severe weather threat as well. As it moved to the east, a crippling ice storm scenario was developing as well.

2010–11 North American winter

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

Glossary of meteorology Wikimedia list article

This glossary of meteorology is a list of terms and concepts relevant to meteorology and the atmospheric sciences, their sub-disciplines, and related fields.


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