What Causes Winter Storms?

Dec 29, 2022 | Weather

Winter is here, and the weather has already gotten colder. For some people, it’s even bringing back memories of a couple of years ago when Winter Storm Uri hit the Lone star state. It was one of the worst natural disasters in Texas history and resulted in the deaths of 246 people and $200 billion in damages. Many areas experienced record-low temperatures with snow and ice, and parts of the state were colder than Anchorage, Alaska. It was the first time every county in Texas had a Winter Storm Warning.

With a recent winter tragic event upon us, many people wonder if such a weather event could happen again and what caused it in the first place. So in this article, we’re going to look at winter storms and what causes them, and what we need to know in Texas to stay safe during the colder months.


What Is a Winter Storm?

First, let’s define what we’re talking about when we refer to winter storms. Simply put, a winter storm is a weather event where the precipitation is snow, sleet, or freezing rain, and it’s often paired with wind and freezing temperatures.

The severity of winter storms largely varies by region. Up in the northern parts of the country, storms happen from October into April and bring snowfall that could range from a dusting to a severe blizzard with wind-driven snow that makes travel difficult, if not impossible. Thankfully, it’s usually a little less severe down here in the south, with freezing temperatures happening much less frequently.


What Causes Winter Storms?

Winter storms have three essential components that are necessary for them to develop:

  • Cold air: Below-freezing temperatures in the atmosphere and near the earth create snow and ice.
  • Lift: Warm air in the atmosphere collides with cold air and rises over the cold. The boundary between the two air masses is called a front. 
  • Moisture: In order for clouds and precipitation to form, moisture from a lake or ocean is needed. 


The combination of these factors creates a perfect storm for conditions to develop and bring a variety of precipitation, like snow, ice, sleet, and freezing rain. 


What Caused Winter Storm Uri?

Texas A&M University expert John Nielsen-Gammon said that a series of events led to the winter storm. First, the wind patterns in the upper atmosphere were disturbed, which is common during winter. Then, the jet stream polar vortex moved south into Canada, where it lingered while the jet stream from the Pacific Ocean moved south. This allowed low-level cold air to plunge beneath the polar vortex into central and southern United States regions. The cold air stayed in place while multiple winter storms came through.


Could it happen again? It could, but keep in mind that Winter Storm Uri was in the top five of all-time Texas cold events. Annually, there’s only about a 2% chance of a storm of that magnitude happening. 


What Are the Types of Winter Storms?

We often think of big, blustery blizzards as winter storms, but those are just one type. A winter storm is any storm that happens during the winter months that brings cold weather and precipitation. 


Snowstorms — No big surprise here. Snowstorms are storms. With snow. These can range from no accumulation beyond a light dusting called a (snow flurry), some accumulation (snow shower), or a blizzard (a severe storm). The air temperature must be at or below freezing for snow to form. If air above ground is above freezing, snow will melt and become rain or freezing rain.


Blizzards — More common up in the Dakotas and Minnesota, blizzards can bring a lot of snow but what they’re known for is wind. Wind can hit speeds at or above 35 mph to blow snow and reduce visibility. Blizzards and sometimes accompanied temperatures with blizzard conditions may produce dangerous wind chill values.


Ice Storms — Ice storms are winter storms where ice accumulates on outdoor surfaces and makes traveling of any kind — even walking — dangerous. Ice can collect on power lines and tree branches to bring down limbs or disrupt electricity service.


What Dangers Do Winter Storms Bring?

Winter storms can bring dangerous conditions, but most deaths do not result from the storm itself. Rather, icy roads lead to traffic accidents, overexertion in cold weather leads to heart attacks, and exposure to cold temperatures causes hypothermia. Of all ice- and snow-related injuries, about 70% happen in automobiles, and 25% are people caught in a storm, with most injuries related to cold exposure. 


What to Know About Winter Storm Alerts

The National Weather Service issues winter weather alerts when weather conditions such as snow, freezing rain, freezing drizzle, and sleet could lead to dangerous or life-threatening situations. 


Winter Storm Warning  — Get ready for snow or ice, heavy winds, and freezing temperatures. Have your supplies ready, as travel and outdoor exposure are likely to become dangerous.


Winter Storm Watch — Be on the lookout, as conditions are favorable for a winter storm to develop. If you don’t have supplies, now is the time to get them. Generally, a winter storm watch provides a 12 to 36-hour notice of the possibility of severe winter weather.


Winter Weather Advisory — These alerts are intended to make you aware that winter weather conditions should be expected but may not reach life-threatening levels. Still, be cautious when traveling or venturing outdoors.


Winter Storm Weather Safety Tips

Before the storm — Devise a disaster plan and get your supplies together. Make sure you have a first aid kit, emergency food, bottled water, battery-operated radio, a flashlight, warm clothing, and blankets.


During the storm — Stay indoors and wear warm clothing. Eat regularly and stay hydrated to give your body energy to produce heat. Keep your cell phone charged and let someone know where you’re going if you must venture out — but it’s best to stay put.


After the Storm — Avoid driving until road conditions are favorable. If you’re in an area with snow, be aware that heart attacks from shoveling snow are the leading cause of death during the winter. 


Stay Safe!

Fortunately, Since then, steps have been taken to make our electrical power system after the grid failed us. Whether they work or not, at least we all now have a better sense of the complications that can arise with extreme cold, and we can be ready for them.


Winter storms create conditions that are unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst. Cold temperatures, wind, and precipitation can combine to disrupt the day and, as we’ve seen in years past, even stress the electrical grid. Stay aware of weather conditions during the winter months and keep your home prepared and in stock of necessities and essentials just in case you’re stuck for a few days. You can also check out these other resources for more information about preparation:


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