Friday, January 9, 2015

Snow Squalls And Ground Blizzards: More Dangerous Than Big Snowstorms?

Skies cleared shortly after a snow squall
contributed to a 150-car pileup in Michigan
today. One of the vehicles involved was a truck
carrying fireworks, which burned and
exploded. Photo via Twitter, @UTM16.  
It seems like its often not the big snowstorms that cause chaos on the roads. It's the so-called little events, which aren't necessarily so little.

Recently, localized snow squalls have made the news often by causing carnage on the highways. And ground blizzards, which usually involve little falling snow but a lot of blowing snow, are equally treacherous.

Today, we had a dramatic pileup in Michigan, when about 150 cars slammed into each other amid snow squalls along Interstate 94 not far from Kalamazoo. One of the trucks involved was carrying fireworks and burst into flames.

That led to some dramatic videos and photos of the fire and other carnage on that highway. At least one person has died and some 16 others are injured.

Elsewhere in Michigan, a major highway south of Ann Arbor was closed today because of a pileup amid snow squalls. 

Of course, last week, we had that big pileup on Interstate 93 in New Hampshire, which also involved a fire when a truck burst into flames in the middle of the mess.

Of course, this made me nervous when an intense line of snow squalls went through Vermont today. I was waiting for the sound of crashes in the near zero visibility along Interstate 89, which, when it's not snowing torrentially, you an see from my house as it is about a quarter mile away.

Luckily, I've heard no reports of major crashes in Vermont so far, but a squall related crash has been reported on Interstate 89 near Montpelier.

It seems most of these pileups occur not in major snowstorms but in localized snow squalls. I think the problem is in part psychological.

When a big storm is forecast or underway, there's a drumbeat of warnings and admonishments to slow down and take it easy. So people do. Plus, conditions usually don't change all that rapidly during a day long snowstorm. The snow keeps coming. The road stays slippery, people slow down.
Visibility was about 100 yards during a snow squall, as
seen in my St. Albans, Vermont yard today. Glad
I wasn't out on the roads at the time.  

In snow squalls, conditions change suddenly. Also, the warnings in the media aren't as dire.

Yes, you get winter weather advisories and special weather statements saying snow squalls are in the area, rapidly changing conditions, poor visibility and ice will make driving hazardous.

But these warnings seem more on the fly, and are not drummed into our heads for hours and hours.

Mostly because we often don't have hours and hours of warnings before meteorologists can figure out snow squalls are developing.

So, with the warnings that might seem to many people as not as dire as a winter storm, people zoom along on the highways, not really noticing the roads beneath their wheels have gotten very slippery.

Plus, some motorists might think "Ah, it's just a dusting of snow. Maybe an inch. It can't be that dangerous, like a big storm." Then they slam into the semi that has stopped in front of them because of crashes that are already developing.

I'm not sure how forecasters really can improve on making people more cognizant that snow squalls are at least as dangerous as big snowstorms, maybe more so. I guess we can issue warnings that are even more urgent sounding than the ones that go out now.

I would love to hear ideas on how to accomplish that.

Another hazard, common to the Midwest and Great Plains, are ground blizzards.

Yesterday, widespread ground blizzards hit the Northern Plains, especially in the Dakotas, western Minnesota and parts of Iowa.  
Groun blizzard along Interstate 29 in Tea, South Dakota
yesterday. Photo via Twitter, South Dakota DOT
and Shawn Cable of KSFY.  

I don't have any reports of major crashes, but these ground blizzards are deadly, too.

The sky might be blue above, but the dense clouds of blowing snow can reduce visibility on highways to near zero.

Plus you often get conditions like you got yesterday in the Dakotas:

Very cold temperatures, and winds gusting in the 50 to 60 mph range. That's very dangerous if you're caught out in the middle of nowhere with no shelter after running your car into a ditch.

Below is a time lapse video of a guy's trip home from work in Minnesota yesterday. Notice in towns, it's not too bad, because the buildings and trees block some of the wind. But get out out into the open country, and it's a different matter entirely.



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