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Thundersnow: Mother Nature's Winter Menace

February 4, 2014

By WeatherBug's Luke Paris

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Have you ever heard a faint rumble in the distance outside during a snowstorm? It was most likely a snowplow revving its way through the streets, although there could be another culprit: thundersnow. Thundersnow is an unusual weather phenomenon that is similar to a typical thunderstorm, but produces snow instead of rain. Regardless of its rarity, thundersnow still has the potential to be very dangerous due to lightning and high snowfall rates.

Unlike typical thunderstorms that form during the warmer months and produce rain and even hail, thundersnows form in the colder months, usually between October and March, and obviously by its name, produce snow. A thundersnow's calling card is heavy snow, with rates of two to three inches per hour not uncommon. Similar to thunderstorms, thundersnows usually have a relatively brief lifespan, but have the capacity to bury a location under several inches of accumulation with little warning.

Not only are the high snowfall rates within a thundersnow potentially dangerous, the threat of lightning associated with the storm is very real. Even though lightning is not as frequent in a thundersnow compared to a thunderstorm, there have been cases of people being struck by lightning during a thundersnow. In March of 1996, a man was struck during a blizzard in Minneapolis. Six years later, four teenagers in Caribou, Maine, were injured in February 2002 when lightning struck a hill they were sledding on.

Structurally, a thundersnow is not all that different from a thunderstorm. Plenty of moisture, instability and lift are needed in order for a thundersnow to form. The biggest notable difference between a thunderstorm and a thundersnow is a pocket of cold air near the surface. Below-freezing temperatures within the clouds and near the surface are what will allow the precipitation to form as snow as opposed to rain.

Most people have never experienced a thundersnow in their lifetime and with good reason. On average, thundersnows develop only six times across the U.S. each year, with the greatest concentration in the Intermountain West, Plains and Great Lakes. Although rare, they have also been known to form throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast as well. Thundersnow was reported in the blizzard that slammed the East Coast on February 9-10, 2010. Digging farther back in the records, thundersnow was also common in the March 1993 Storm of the Century that walloped the East.

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Story Image: A car gets stranded in heavy snow in Griffith, Ind. (Mike, WeatherBug user)

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