What Is a Blizzard? 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

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Living in a state that is prone to having snowstorms likely means that you’ve experienced a blizzard at least once in your life. However, did you know that there are multiple criteria that a weather system has to meet in order to be coined a blizzard?

New England is currently preparing for their first bout of plowable snow this season. The weather system is moving up the east coast, set to strike several states in its path. Massachusetts is expected to feel the most impacts from this storm, with some areas — including Boston — expecting upwards of a foot of snow. But will this 2018 snowstorm actually be a blizzard?

Here is what you need to know:


1. The Storm Headed for New England Is a ‘Bomb Cyclone’

what is a blizzard

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The term “bomb cyclone” is being used to describe the weather system that is set to arrive in New England on Thursday, January 4. A “bomb cyclone” occurs when a storm’s pressure drops so quickly that there is “explosive strengthening.” The term “bomb” is short for “bombogenesis.”

The National Ocean Service provides more of a technical definition.

“Bombogenesis, a popular term used by meteorologists, occurs when a midlatitude cyclone rapidly intensifies, dropping at least 24 millibars over 24 hours. A millibar measures atmospheric pressure. This can happen when a cold air mass collides with a warm air mass, such as air over warm ocean waters. The formation of this rapidly strengthening weather system is a process called bombogenesis, which creates what is known as a bomb cyclone.”

Meteorologist Ryan Maue says that this storm will have “pressure as low as [Hurricane] Sandy & hurricane [force] winds.”

A “bomb cyclone” can have winds strong enough to take down trees and power lines. It can also cause structural damage, not unlike a hurricane. While Thursday’s storm is still expected to be major, the worst of it will actually stay over the Atlantic Ocean.

While this storm has blizzard potential, it’s currently a Nor’easter.

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2. There Are a Few Factors That Need to Happen in Order for a Storm to Be Dubbed a ‘Blizzard’

what is a blizzard

Heavy snow and gusty winds are just a couple of factors that can contribute to a blizzard, but it’s not quite that simple. The National Weather Service will not call a storm a blizzard until it meets very specific criteria.

For starters, there has to be a lot of snow (usually in the range of 12+ inches, though an exact amount isn’t given). Simultaneously, the wind speeds must be 35 miles per hour or higher and visibility (due to blowing snow), must be less than 1/4 mile. All of these things must happen at the same time for a minimum of three hours before a storm earns itself an upgraded name.

According to Live Science, when all of these conditions are expected in a given area, the National Weather Service will issue a “blizzard watch.” A “watch” will turn into a “warning” if an when that severe whether approaches and it will remain in effect throughout the duration of the storm.

It’s important to note that a “blizzard warning” does not actually mean that a storm is a blizzard. It means that people who are in the warning area will likely experience the aforementioned conditions. Remember: If and only if those conditions occur simultaneously for three or more hours do you have a blizzard.

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As of 4:15 p.m. on January 3, the National Weather Service issued a Blizzard Warning for some areas in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.


3. About 400 People Die in Blizzards in the U.S. Each Year

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Blizzards are very dangerous storms and deaths are not all that uncommon. Many times, people die in accidents resulting from poor weather conditions. Car accidents, for example, tend to be plentiful due to icy roads and poor visibility, which is why people are encouraged to stay off of the roads during these storms.

Deaths are not imminent when there is a blizzard and some storms are certainly worse than others.

Below is a list of the 10 deadliest blizzards worldwide, according to Geni. As you can see, four of the 10 blizzards on the list below occurred in the United States. The most recent blizzard with a significant death toll in the United States was the Storm of the Century which left 318 people dead. The storm started in the south and caused quite a few tornadoes, leaving dozens of people dead.

1972 Iran Blizzard (Iran) – 4000
1719 Carolean Death March (Sweden/Norway) – 3000
2008 Afghanistan Blizzard (Afghanistan) – 926
1888 Great Blizzard of 1888 (United States) – 400+
1993 Storm of the Century (United States) – 318
1888 Schoolhouse Blizzard (United States) – 235
1902 Hakko-da Mountains incident (Japan) – 199
1996 North American blizzard of 1996 – 154
1940 Armistice Day Blizzard (United States) – 144
2008 Chinese winter storms (China) – 133


4. There Have Been 7 Major Blizzards in the United States

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Blizzards can most certainly be pretty nasty, but there are some that are worse than others. In March 2017, History put together a list of the worst blizzards in the United States.

The Great White Blizzard – March 11-14, 1888

“Temperatures plunged and vicious winds kicked up, blanketing the East Coast in snow and creating drifts up to 50 feet high. The storm immobilized New York, Boston and other major cities, blocking roads and wiping out telephone, telegraph and rail service for several days. When the skies finally cleared, fires and flooding inflicted millions of dollars of damage.”

The Knickerbocker Storm – January 27-28, 1922

“The Knickerbocker Storm battered the upper South and middle Atlantic United States for two days, dumping a record-breaking 28 inches of snow on Washington, D.C.”

The Blizzard of ’78 – February 5-7, 1978

“Massive snowdrifts trapped families in their homes and workers in their offices. In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, record snowfalls left residents without heat, water or electricity for more than a week.”

The Storm of the Century – March 12-15, 1993

“The storm affected at least 26 U.S. states and much of eastern Canada, reaching as far south as Jacksonville, Florida. It dumped several feet of snow on regions that typically see less than an inch of powder a year, forcing officials to scrape together winter emergency plans.”

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The “Blizzard” of 1996 – January 6-10, 1996

“On the evening of January 6, snow and sleet began hammering Washington, D.C., Baltimore and surrounding areas. Over the next few days, the storm made its way northeast, breaking records along the way. By the time it subsided, it had deposited between 17 and 30 inches of wind-driven snow on every city along the Eastern seaboard.”

The Three Blizzards of 2010 – February 2010

“In the United States, the new decade came in like a lion with not one, not two, but three blizzards—all within a span of 20 snowy days. Between February 1 and 6, a severe winter storm swept the country from coast to coast, piling record amounts of snow in the Mid-Atlantic states. On February 9, a second storm produced high winds and heavy snowfalls from Washington, D.C., to Boston. And on February 25, a slow-moving system crippled the Northeast yet again, leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without power.”

The Day After Christmas Blizzard – December 26-27, 2010

“Pummeling many regions from midday on December 26 through the following afternoon, the post-holiday storm featured a rare meteorological event known as thundersnow, in which thunder and lighting are accompanied by heavy snow rather than rain. … Snowfall was deepest in Rahway, New Jersey, which received a whopping 32 inches.”


5. The Term ‘Blizzard’ Was First Used to Describe a Snowstorm in Iowa

what is a blizzard

The actual definition of the word “blizzard” is “an overabundance; a deluge.” It was used back in the day to describe a canon shot or a volley of musket fire.

When it comes to meteorology, it first popped up in the state of Iowa when a newspaper writer used it to describe a snowstorm in the area back in the 1870s. About a decade later, just about everyone was throwing the word around.

The term is now used when a snowstorm reaches its maximum potential and earns the name from the National Weather Service. Areas in the United States that are familiar with this type of storm include the Upper Midwest, the Great Plains, and New England.

“The greatest snowfall event ever in the lower-48 United States was 63 inches, Georgetown, Colorado, on Dec. 4, 1913. The record for New York City is 25.5 inches on Dec. 26, 1947, and for Boston it is a 23.6-inch event on Feb. 17, 2003,” Live Science reports.

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