What is a Snow Squall? Why They Happen and How to Stay Safe

cars on road in snow

It happens almost every winter. Drivers are caught off guard by icy roads and a sudden wave of gusty winds, cold, and heavy snow showers that bring visibility down to well under a quarter-mile, what many call “whiteout conditions.” It’s called a snow squall and is more common than people think. So what is a snow squall, and why do we repeatedly keep making the same mistakes, and the accidents keep happening?

It’s arguably due to the transient nature of snow squalls. As quickly as they strike, they end — so they’re quickly forgotten, unlike a blizzard. The disruption is temporary, and things move again like nothing ever happened within an hour or two. Also, like a thunderstorm, they’re hard to predict. But meteorologists are doing something about that, too.

What is a Snow Squall?

Snow squalls are dangerous winter weather events that often catch people off guard due to their sudden nature. Many people who live in the Midwest or the Northeast US will experience a snow squall at some point in the winter. While short-lived, they should be treated with the same caution as a snowstorm or a blizzard.

Heavy snowfall is the hallmark of the snow squall, but other factors such as cold temperature, high winds, and blowing snow contribute to their dangerous nature. Squalls often form along strong cold fronts in the winter, and snow squall might be accompanied by a sudden drop in temperatures.

In rare cases, “thundersnow” can occur during a powerful snow squall. Snow squalls are convective like thunderstorms, so the same meteorological rules apply.

What Does a Snow Squall Look Like?

The snow squall is better seen than reading about, so we’ve included a video showing you how crazy it can get, from 9NEWS in Colorado, complete with thunder and lightning.

What is a Whiteout?

A whiteout is a snow squall that reduces visibility to zero. While snow squalls can reduce visibility to around one mile, true whiteout conditions make it difficult to see beyond a few feet in front of you. They can be incredibly disorienting to both drivers and those caught outside.

How long do snow squalls last?

snow plow on road

Snow squalls usually last less than an hour, and snow accumulations are typically only a few inches. The rate at which the snow falls causes problems because roads go from clear to completely snow-covered in minutes, and visibility drops within seconds due to the combination of snow and wind, giving drivers little time to adapt. Their quick and intense nature, much like severe thunderstorms, prompted the National Weather Service to introduce a new warning type, the Snow Squall Warning.

When do snow squalls occur?

They most commonly occur during December through March during the passage of an arctic cold front and frequently within bands of lake effect snow off the Great Lakes December and January. Major cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston regularly see snow squalls. They do happen in the southern portions of the US; however, this is extremely rare. They also occur in the Midwest US as well, especially near the Rockies.

Occasionally, heavy snow squall bands will set up like lines of thunderstorms on a summer day. They can occur at any time of the day. However, they are much more dangerous at night as visibility is reduced by both darkness and snow.

Is it dangerous to walk in a snow squall?

what is a snow squall

Walking is probably your safest method of transportation in snow squalls, but with visibility so low, it is still dangerous. Add to this the fact that sidewalks and macadam are often untreated and may be icy, and it’s better that you stay inside until conditions improve.

Types of Weather Warnings for Snow Squalls

Until recently, there was no specific warning for snow squalls. However, after several high-profile significant accidents resulting from snow squalls, the National Weather Service created a new warning type called the Snow Squall Warning.

The snow squall warning works the same way as a severe thunderstorm or tornado warning and is issued for small areas ahead of the snow squall. The hope is that people will take snow squalls more seriously, alter their behavior accordingly, and stay off the roads.

What to do if you’re caught in a snow squall

The best thing to do is stay indoors or seek shelter before the squall hits. Conditions will deteriorate rapidly once the snow starts. If the forecast calls for snow squalls, delay travel until after the threat has passed. Stay tuned to local media and National Weather Service alerts for the latest news and any possible snow squall warnings.

If you have to go, make sure you have a full tank of gas and items to help if you get stuck, such as shovels, salt, and kitty litter (yes, it does work!).

If the snow squall catches you off guard, get off the road as soon as is safely possible. Slow down. Speed is your enemy in snowy conditions. Apply the brakes carefully and slowly if you need to step and turn your headlights on, and foglights if you have them. Keep as much distance as you can from the car in front of you. Gusty winds and heavy snowfall will add even more complexity, so if you can stop somewhere safely, do so.

Stay inside your vehicle and wait for the squall to pass. If you get stranded, keep warm by staying inside with all windows shut tight until help arrives. If you must walk to seek shelter, choose a shelter close by — however, staying in your car is the best thing to do.

snow plow in snow

Wrapping Up

Snow squalls can be dangerous and sneak up on people, but they’re just snowstorms. They come with the same precautions: stay home if possible, drive slowly and carefully if you must go out, and know that snow removal services may not arrive for several hours after a snow squall passes through an area.

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