How Will I Know If A Snowstorm Is Coming?

Ouija board GIF
There’s got to be a better way.

Don’t break out the crystal ball just yet. Let’s start with some data on how often blizzards and snowstorms occur. According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climate, the frequency of storms and blizzards has increased fourfold from the middle of the last century.

The modeled increase in blizzard activity showed a nearly fourfold upsurge between the start and end of the study period at 5.9 and 21.6 blizzards, respectively. On the basis of current model trends, the expected blizzard total for a season is 32 blizzards by 2050; uncertainty exists on whether the linear trend will continue or stabilize in the near future.

An Updated Blizzard Climatology of the Contiguous United States (1959–2014): An Examination of Spatiotemporal Trends

If that’s all gibberish to you, it means blizzards are way more common now than they were in the 1960s, and scientists aren’t sure if they’ll keep becoming more frequent or not. North Dakota, parts of South Dakota, and Minnesota now have a 60% chance of a major blizzard every year.

This study also found that blizzards are most common in December and January, and have an average range of 32,000 square miles. That’s a little bit bigger than the entire state of South Carolina. Major yikes.

Rule of Thumb

32,000 square miles is also a little bigger than the entire state of Maine. Watch out, Stephen King.

Understanding Snowstorm Warnings

Now that we know they’re hunting us for sport and getting better at it every year, we should bone up on snowstorm warnings.

The good news is that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service (NWS) provide official warnings before a snowstorm. Various weather services (apps, local and national TV stations) also offer their own interpretation of raw data drawn from NWS.

NWS issues warnings, watches, or outlooks for specific regions, depending on the severity and proximity of the incoming storm. Here are the different snowstorm warnings you may see, ranging from most severe to least.

  • Blizzard Warning — Sustained winds of above 35 miles an hour, reducing visibility to almost zero. Timeframe: Actively occurring or occurring within 24 hours.
  • Winter Storm Warning — Life-threatening conditions due to heavy snowfall. Timeframe: Actively occurring or occurring within 24 hours.
  • Winter Storm Watch — A storm with heavy snowfall is coming for you. Timeframe: More than 24 hours away.
  • Winter Storm Outlook — Conditions are right for a snowstorm. Timeframe: Up to five days away.

Fortunately, non-Luddites receive dangerous weather warnings automatically on their smartphones. If you’ve never gotten a weather alert on your phone, check your settings to ensure you have weather alerts turned on.

If you don’t have a smartphone, listen to the radio or watch local TV news stations. Anything above a Winter Storm Outlook is big news, and should be reported heavily on all outlets.

So what do you do if there’s a snowstorm?

Weather ballon predicting a snowstorm
A huge thank you to weather nerds and their nerdy weather balloons! We owe them everything.

About the Authors

It takes a village! We are researching, writing and fact checking as a family. Collaboration is the name of the game, whether we’re running from a zombie horde or finding the best way to turn a complex concept into a deliciously digestible set of bullet points.

Katherine Esperanza is a Los Angeles based writer. When she's not conjuring new queer slice-of-life short stories, she's busy watching the newest films, out at queer shows, supporting queer artists, or just checking out the queer community as a whole.

A former international non-profiteer, small business owner, and co-op'er, Katherine is delighted to help introduce more leftist politics into the disaster preparedness/prepper sphere, which is currently far too right-wing.