Winter Weather Safety

Learn about the different types of winter weather so you can be prepared for winter storms and frozen precipitation.

  • Severe winter weather can cause dangerous road conditions.
    Photo by Getty Images/stockstudioX
  • A fresh blanket of snow can make a beautiful country scene.
    Photo by Getty Images/AGrigorjeva
  • When freezing rain hits, it's best to stay indoors.
    Photo by Getty Images/seleznyov_ae
  • The air temperature will determine the size of snowflakes.
    Photo by Getty Images/jfguignard
  • Heavy snowfall can cause tree limbs to break and potential power outages.
    Photo by Getty Images/dovate
  • Freezing rain is the worst of the winter precipitation types.
    Photo by Getty Images/YinYang

Winter is just around the corner — more like upon us in some parts of the continent. For most rural folk, this means the possibility of winter storms and freezing or frozen precipitation. Worth noting, every state has had snow at some point. Even the high volcanic peaks on the Big Island of Hawaii regularly get winter snowstorms.

There are three types of winter precipitation we must deal with when temperatures drop below freezing: snow, sleet, and freezing rain. Let’s take a look at what we may have to face when these occur.

Let it snow

Snow is actually an ice crystal — it’s not frozen rain. Water vapor in the air (a gas) turns directly into a crystal (a solid). The six-sided flake you’ve likely seen pictures of is the most common, but there are other shapes, too. So, what do you need to know about snow?

Snow varies in moisture content and consistency. You may have heard that 10 inches of snow would melt down to 1 inch of water. That ratio actually varies a great deal. When air temperatures are below freezing but close to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, snowflakes are large, the snow is heavy and wet (great packing snow), and the ratio may drop down to 5:1. Lower temperatures mean smaller snowflakes and a lighter, drier snow with ratios as high as 30:1.

Speaking of freezing temperatures, it is never “too cold to snow.” It can snow with temperatures well below zero. But it can also snow when the surface temperature is above freezing, as the snowflakes are formed in clouds well above the surface. It has snowed at temperatures in the 40s, at least at the outset. And snow can start to accumulate even on relatively warm ground. If it’s snowing hard enough, the accumulation rate can exceed the melting rate on the ground.

How hard can it snow? Certainly, an inch or 2 per hour occurs with intense storms. Snowfall rates of more than 4 inches per hour aren’t unheard of. Some of the heaviest snowfalls occur with the “lake effect” snow bands. Cold air blowing across the still-warm waters of the Great Lakes during late fall and early winter can generate intense snow squalls on the lee shores, the shores the wind is blowing toward. Several feet of snow can fall in one event.

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