All About Winter Storms - KCBD NewsChannel 11 Lubbock

All About Winter Storms

What is a Winter Storm?

  • Winter storms can come in many shapes and sizes. Not all winter storms are snowstorms. Depending on where you live, a winter storm can vary from a blizzard to an arctic blast of cold air and finger-numbing wind chills. Some types of storms are:
    • Storms with Strong Winds - Sometimes winter storms are accompanied by strong winds creating blizzard conditions with blinding wind-driven snow, severe drifting, and dangerous wind chill. Strong winds with these intense storms and cold fronts can knock down trees, utility poles, and power lines. Storms near the coast can cause coastal flooding and beach erosion as well as sink ships at sea. In the West and Alaska, winds descending off the mountains can gust to 100 mph or more damaging roofs and other structures.
    • Extreme Cold - Extreme cold often accompanies a winter storm or is left in its wake. Prolonged exposure to the cold can cause frostbite or hypothermia and become life threatening. Infants and elderly people are most susceptible. What constitutes extreme cold and its effect varies across different areas of the United States. In areas unaccustomed to winter weather, near freezing temperatures are considered "extreme cold." Freezing temperatures can cause severe damage to citrus fruit crops and other vegetation. Pipes may freeze and burst in homes that are poorly insulated or without heat. In the north, below zero temperatures may be considered as "extreme cold." Long cold spells can cause rivers to freeze, disrupting shipping. Ice jams may form and lead to flooding.
    • Ice Storms - Heavy accumulations of ice can bring down trees, electrical wires, telephone poles and lines, and communication towers. Communications and power can be disrupted for days while utility companies work to repair the extensive damage. Even small accumulations of ice may cause extreme hazards to motorists and pedestrians.
    • Heavy Snow Storms - Heavy snow can immobilize a region and paralyze a city, stranding commuters, stopping the flow of supplies, and disrupting emergency and medical services. Accumulations of snow can collapse buildings and knock down trees and power lines. In rural areas, homes and farms may be isolated for days, and unprotected livestock may be lost. In the mountains, heavy snow can lead to avalanches. The cost of snow removal, repairing damages, and loss of business can have large economic impacts on cities and towns.

Types of Winter Precipitation:

  • Snow Flurries - Light snow falling for short durations. No accumulation or light dusting is all that is expected.
  • Snow Showers - Snow falling at varying intensities for brief periods of time. Some accumulation is possible.
  • Snow Squalls - Brief, intense snow showers accompanied by strong, gusty winds. Accumulation may be significant. Snow squalls are best known in the Great Lakes region.
  • Blowing Snow - Wind-driven snow that reduces visibility and causes significant drifting. Blowing snow may be snow that is falling and/or loose snow on the ground picked up by the wind.
  • Blizzard - Winds over 35 mph with snow and blowing snow-reducing visibility to near zero.
  • Sleet - Raindrops that freeze into ice pellets before reaching the ground. Sleet usually bounces when hitting a surface and does not stick to objects. However, it can accumulate like snow and cause a hazard to motorists.
  • Freezing Rain - Rain that falls onto a surface with a temperature below freezing. This causes it to freeze to surfaces, such as trees, cars, and roads, forming a coating or glaze of ice. Even small accumulations of ice can cause a significant hazard.

Winter Storms by Region:

  • From the Mid-Atlantic Coast to New England - The classic storm is called a Nor'easter. A low-pressure area off the Carolina coast strengthens and moves north. Wind-driven waves batter the coast from Virginia to Maine, causing flooding and severe beach erosion. The storm taps the Atlantic's moisture-supply and dumps heavy snow over a densely populated region. The snow and wind may combine into blizzard conditions and form deep drifts paralyzing the region. Ice storms are also a problem. Mountains, such as the Appalachians, act as a barrier to cold air trapping it in the valleys and adjacent low elevations. Warm air and moisture moves over the cold, trapped air. Rain falls from the warm layer onto a cold surface below becoming ice.
  • Along the Gulf Coast and Southeast - This region is generally unaccustomed to snow, ice, and freezing temperatures. Once in a while, cold air penetrates south across Texas and Florida, into the Gulf of Mexico. Temperatures fall below freezing killing tender vegetation, such as flowering plants and the citrus fruit crop. Wet snow and ice rapidly accumulate on trees with leaves, causing the branches to snap under the load. Motorists are generally unaccustomed to driving on slick roads and traffic accidents increase. Some buildings are poorly insulated or lack heat altogether. Local municipalities may not have available snow removal equipment or treatments, such as sand or salt, for icy roads.
  • In the Midwest and Plains - Storms tend to develop over southeast Colorado in the lee of the Rockies. These storms move east or northeast and use both the southward plunge of cold air from Canada and the northward flow of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico to produce heavy snow and sometimes blizzard conditions. Other storms affecting the Midwest and Plains intensify in the lee of the Canadian Rockies and move southeast. Arctic air is drawn from the north and moves south across the Plains and Great Lakes. Wind and cold sometimes combine to cause wind chill temperatures as low as 70F below zero. The wind crosses the lakes, tapping its moisture and forming snow squalls and narrow heavy snow bands. This is called "lake-effect snow."
  • From the Rockies to the West Coast - Strong storms crossing the North Pacific sometimes slam into the coast from California to Washington. The vast Pacific provides an unlimited source of moisture for the storm. If cold enough, snow falls over Washington and Oregon and sometimes even in California. As the moisture rises into the mountains, heavy snow closes the mountain passes and can cause avalanches. The cold air from the north has to filter through mountain canyons into the basins and valleys to the south. If the cold air is deep enough, it can spill over the mountain ridge. As the air funnels through canyons and over ridges, wind speeds can reach 100 mph, damaging roofs and taking down power and telephone lines. Combining these winds with snow results in a blizzard.

How do winter storms form?

  • There are several ingredients essential to a winter storm. Most are necessary for one type of winter weather event or another. Cold air is essential and must be present at the earths surface as well as levels above the surface and in the clouds.
  • The type of precipitation that occurs is dependent on how cold the air is and the cold temperatures at all levels of the atmosphere. For precipitation, a source of moisture must be present as well as a certain amount of lift. Rising motion produces clouds and precipitation. This motion can be caused by either terrain or instability caused by a low-pressure system.

Hazards of Winter Storms:

  • Everyone is potentially at risk during winter storms. The actual threat to you depends on your specific situation. Recent observations indicate that accidents due to winter storms occur 70% of the time in automobiles and 25% of the time people are caught outside unprepared.
  • The cold temperatures bring on most of the hazards. Frostbite and hypothermia are two of the main injuries and are caused by prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Frostbite is damage to body tissue caused by that tissue being frozen. Frostbite causes a loss of feeling and a white or pale appearance in extremities, such as fingers, toes, ear lobes, or the tip of the nose. If symptoms are detected, get medical help immediately. If you must wait for help, slowly re-warm affected areas.
    However, if the person is also showing signs of hypothermia, warm the body core before the extremities. If needed, use your own body heat to help. Get the person into dry clothing, and wrap them in a warm blanket covering the head and neck. Do not give the person alcohol, drugs, coffee, or any hot beverage or food; warm broth is better. Do not warm extremities (arms and legs) first! This drives the cold blood toward the heart and can lead to heart failure. Some warning signs of hypothermia are: uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness, and apparent exhaustion.
  • Wind chill can also be a factor during storms if a person has areas of exposed skin. The wind chill is based on the rate of heat loss from exposed skin caused by combined effects of wind and cold. As the wind increases, heat is carried away from the body at an accelerated rate, driving down the body temperature. Animals are also affected by wind chill.

Winter Storm Safety

  • If you are caught outside in a winter storm follow the following:
    • Find shelter try to stay dry.
    • Cover all exposed parts of the body.
    • No shelter: prepare a lean-to, windbreak, or snow cave for protection from the wind.
    • Build a fire for heat and to attract attention.
    • Place rocks around the fire to absorb and reflect heat.
    • Do not eat snow: It will lower your body temperature. Melt it first.
  • If you are in a car or truck and caught in a winter storm:
    • Stay in your car or truck. Disorientation occurs quickly in wind-driven snow and cold.
    • Run the motor about ten minutes each hour for heat:
      • Open the window a little for fresh air to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
      • Make sure the exhaust pipe is not blocked.
    • Make yourself visible to rescuers:
      • Turn on the dome light at night when running engine.
      • Tie a colored cloth (preferably red) to your antenna or door.
      • Raise the hood indicating trouble after snow stops falling.
      • Exercise from time to time by vigorously moving arms, legs, fingers, and toes to keep blood circulating and to keep warm.
    • If you are stuck at home or another building during a winter storm:
      • Stay inside. When using alternative heat from a fireplace, wood stove, space heater, etc. use fire safeguards.
      • Properly ventilate.
      • Without heat, close off unneeded rooms and stuff towels or rags in cracks under doors and cover windows at night.
      • Eat and drink. Food provides the body with energy for producing its own heat. Keep the body replenished with fluids to prevent dehydration.
      • Wear layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing. Remove layers to avoid overheating, perspiration, and subsequent chill.

    Stay informed about winter weather by watching NewsChannel 11 for the latest winter storm watches, warnings, and advisories.

    Lightning Facts

    • Most lightning deaths and injuries occur when people are caught outdoors.
    • Most lightning casualties occur in the summer months and during the afternoon and early evening.
    • The air near a lightning strike is heated to 50,000°F hotter than the surface of the sun!
    • The rapid heating and cooling of air near the lightning channel causes a shock wave that results in thunder.
    • In the past decade, over 15,000 lightning-induced fires nationwide have resulted in several hundred million dollars a year in damage and the loss of 2 million acres of forest.
    • In recent years, lightning has killed people while boating, fishing, and golfing. They have also been killed while swimming, mountain climbing and bike riding. People have even been killed while talking on the phone.

    Lightning Myths and Facts

    • MYTH: If it is not raining, then there is no danger from lightning.
      FACT: Lightning often strikes outside of heavy rain and may occur as far as 10 miles away from any rainfall.
    • MYTH: The rubber soles of shoes or rubber tires on a car will protect you from being struck by lightning. FACT: Rubber-soled shoes and rubber tires provide NO protection from lightning. However, the steel frame of a hard-topped vehicle provides increased protection if you are not touching metal. Although you may be injured if lightning strikes your car, you are much safer inside a vehicle than outside.
    • MYTH: People struck by lightning carry an electrical charge and should not be touched. FACT: Lightning-strike victims carry no electrical charge and should be attended to immediately. Contact your local American Red Cross chapter for information on CPR and first aid classes.
    • MYTH: "Heat lightning" occurs after very hot summer days and poses no threat. FACT: What is referred to as "heat lightning" is actually lightning from a thunderstorm too far away for thunder to be heard. However, the storm may be moving in your direction!

    Thunderstorm and Lightning Safety

    • Before the Storm:
      • Know the county or parish in which you live and the names of nearby major cities. Severe weather warnings are issued on a county or parish basis.
      • Check the weather forecast before leaving for extended periods outdoors.
      • Watch for signs of approaching storms.
    • If a storm is approaching:
      • Keep a NOAA Weather Radio or AM/FM radio with you.
      • Postpone outdoor activities if thunderstorms are imminent. This is your best way to avoid being caught in a dangerous situation.
      • Check on those who have trouble taking shelter if severe weather threatens.
      • If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to the storm to be struck by lightning. Go to safe shelter immediately!
      • Move to a sturdy building or car. Do not take shelter in small sheds, under isolated trees, or in convertible automobiles.
    • If a storm is imminent:
      • If lightning is occurring and a sturdy shelter is not available, get inside a hard top automobile and keep windows up.
      • Get out of boats and away from water.
      • Telephone lines and metal pipes can conduct electricity. Unplug appliances not necessary for obtaining weather information.
      • Avoid using the telephone or any electrical appliances. Use phones ONLY in an emergency.
      • Do not take a bath or shower.
      • Turn off air conditioners. Power surges from lightning can overload the compressors.
      • Get to higher ground if flash flooding or flooding is possible. Once flooding begins, abandon cars and climb to higher ground. Do not attempt to drive to safety. Note: Most flash flood deaths occur in automobiles.
    • If Caught Outdoors and No Shelter Is Nearby:
      • Find a low spot away from trees, fences, and poles. Make sure the place you pick is not subject to flooding.
      • If you are in the woods, take shelter under the shorter trees.
      • If you feel your skin tingle or your hair stand on end, squat low to the ground on the balls of your feet. Place your hands on your knees with your head between them. Make yourself the smallest target possible, and minimize your contact with the ground.
      • If you are boating or swimming, get to land and find shelter immediately!

    What to Listen For:

    • Severe Thunderstorm Watch:
      • Tells you when and where severe thunderstorms are more likely to occur.
      • Watch the sky and stay tuned to know when warnings are issued.
      • Watches are intended to heighten public awareness and should not be confused with warnings.
    • Severe Thunderstorm Warning:
      • Issued when severe weather has been reported by spotters or indicated by radar.
      • Warnings indicate imminent danger to life and property to those in the path of the storm.
    • Also listen for Tornado Watch or Warning and Flash Flood Watch or Warning.

    Source:FEMA and the Office of Meteorology, NOAA

    More Information about Thunderstorms:

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