What to Know About Winter Storms

Lake effect? Storm squall? Knowing the difference between types of winter storms will help you stay safe this winter.

Like it or not, winter is here. And depending on where you live, the forecast for Winter 2020-21 looks like a real doozy.

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, normal- to below-normal temps and above-average snowfall are predicted in many regions of the U.S., especially in areas like the Great Lakes and Midwest, the northern and central Plains and the Rockies. Don’t be complacent, though, if you live elsewhere. Parts of the East Coast are expected to get “clobbered” toward the end of winter, and the Pacific Northwest will likely see significant winter storms as well.

How do you prepare for these extreme conditions? First of all, take care of some important tasks like weatherizing your home, procuring your stash of emergency supplies and familiarizing yourself with the various types of winter storm alerts that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) puts out as storms approach.

Another related must: learning winter storm terminology! This will clue you in on what to do when you hear a winter storm is heading your way.

What Are the Types of Winter Storms?

In general, a winter storm is a life-threatening weather event that involves heavy snow, blowing snow and/or dangerous wind chills, the NOAA says. But some storms have specific features that put them into a storm sub-category.

Here are some key winter storm names to know before the first bout of winter weather strikes.

  • Blizzard: To qualify as a blizzard, a storm must include wind, blowing snow and low visibility (generally under a half mile). Temperature is not a factor. And while snow can fall during a blizzard, blizzards often occur without fresh snowfall, says Colby Newman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Portland, Ore. More likely, the wind blows snow that fell previously.
  • Ice storm: These are dangerous weather events that result in hazardous driving conditions, downed trees and toppled power lines. According to the National Severe Storm Library (NSSL), power lines can “snap under the weight of the ice.” Caused by freezing rain, a storm becomes an ice storm when it leaves at least 1/4-in. of ice on unprotected surfaces, like roads and sidewalks.
  • Lake effect: These storms are a phenomena specific to the Great Lakes region. Essentially, cold air travels from the North and passes over the Great Lakes’ warm, unfrozen waters. The air “picks up” the moisture from the lakes, leaving the air “full of water,” the NSSL says. The moisture is later dumped as heavy snow, typically to the south or east of the lakes.
  • Snow squall: Like lake effect storms, snow squalls are typically seen in the Great Lakes region. The National Weather Service describes a snow squall as a brief but intense “burst of heavy snowfall” with gusty winds, creating a sudden drop in visibility and slick driving conditions. Snow squalls tend to occur in the daytime and last for an hour or less. Because these storms can lead to “sudden whiteout conditions,” they are extremely dangerous, especially for drivers.

Why Are Winter Storms Dangerous?

While snow itself is beautiful under the right circumstances, winter storms are perilous and can pose some serious safety concerns. One study attributed 571 deaths to winter storms between 1996 and 2011, or 13,852 when you include weather-related traffic and plane accidents. Winter storms are also costly. The Insurance Information Institute found that winter storm-insured losses totaled $2.1 billion in 2019 alone.

Extreme cold, heavy snow, wind and ice all increase the opportunities for a mishap, whether that be a slip on a sidewalk, a tree falling on a house or a 10-car pileup on the Interstate.

Winter Storm Safety and Preparedness

Mishaps aren’t inevitable, though, as long as you take proper precautions. If you hear a winter storm is headed your way, you can keep yourself and your loved ones safe by:

Dawn Weinberger
Dawn Weinberger is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon who has contributed to numerous publications and websites over the past 20 years, including RD.com, Glamour, Women's Health, Entrepreneur, and many others. Dawn has a BA in journalism from Western Washington University and is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She writes about everything from health and medicine to fashion, shopping, and business.