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A winter storm is an event in which the dominant varieties of precipitation are forms that only occur at cold temperatures, such as snow or sleet, or a rainstorm where ground temperatures are cold enough to allow ice to form (i.e. freezing rain). In temperate continental climates, these storms are not necessarily restricted to the winter season, but may occur in the late autumn and early spring as well. Very rarely, they may form in summer, though it would have to be an abnormally cold summer, such as the summer of 1816 in the Northeast United States of America. In many locations in the Northern Hemisphere, the most powerful winter storms usually occur in March and, in regions where temperatures are cold enough, April.




Wintry showers or wintry mixes

A typical view of a winter storm, as found in Cleveland, Ohio.


Many factors influence the form precipitation will take, and atmospheric temperatures are influential as well as ground conditions. Sometimes, near the rain/snow interface a region of sleet or freezing rain will occur. It is difficult to predict what form this precipitation will take, and it may alternate between rain and snow. Therefore, weather forecasters just predict a "wintry mix". Usually, this type of precipitation occurs at temperatures between -2 °C and 2 °C (28 °F and 36 °F).

Freezing rain

Coated in ice, power and telephone lines sag and often break, resulting in power outages.
Plants wrapped in 6 mm (0.2 in) of ice. Severe ice storms, which may occur in the spring, can kill plant life.
Crabapple covered in icy glaze due to freezing rain.

Heavy showers of freezing rain are one of the most dangerous types of winter storm. They typically occur when a layer of warm air hovers over a region, but the ambient temperature is near 0 °C (32 °F), and the ground temperature is sub-freezing. A storm in which only roads freeze is called a freezing rain storm; one resulting in widespread icing of plants and infrastructure is called ice storm.

While a 10 cm (4 in) snowstorm is somewhat manageable by the standards of the northern United States and Canada, a comparable 1 cm (0.4 in) ice storm will paralyze a region: driving becomes extremely hazardous, telephone and power lines are damaged, and crops may be ruined. Because they do not require extreme cold, ice storms often occur in warm temperature climates (such as the southern United States) and cooler ones. Ice storms in Florida will often destroy entire orange crops.

Notable ice storms include an El Niño-related North American ice storm of 1998 that affected much of eastern Canada, including Montreal and Ottawa, as well as upstate New York and part of New England. Three million people lost power, some for as long as six weeks. One-third of the trees in Montreal's Mount Royal park were damaged, as well as a large proportion of the sugar-producing maple trees. The amount of economic damage caused by the storm has been estimated at $3 billion Canadian.

The Ice Storm of December 2002 in North Carolina resulted in massive power loss throughout much of the state, and property damage due to falling trees. Except in the mountainous western part of the state, heavy snow and icy conditions are rare in North Carolina.

The Ice Storm of December 2005 was another severe winter storm producing extensive ice damage across a large portion of the Southern United States on December 14 to 16. It led to power outages and at least 7 deaths.

In January 2005 Kansas had been declared a major disaster zone by President George W. Bush after an ice storm caused nearly $39 million in damages to 32 counties. Federal funds were provided to the counties during January 4–6, 2005 to aid the recovery process.[1]

The January 2009 Central Plains and Midwest ice storm was a crippling and historic ice storm. Most places struck by the storm, saw 2 inches or more of ice accumulation, and a few of inches of snow on top it. This brought down power lines, causing some people to go without power for a few days, to a few weeks. In some cases, some didn't see power for a month or more. At the height of the storm, more than 2 million people were without power.


Ice crystals fall through a cloud of super-cooled droplets-minute cloud droplets that have fallen below freezing tempature but have not frozen. The ice crystal plows into the super-cooled droplets and they immediately freeze to it. This process forms graupel, or snow pellets, as the droplet continues to accumulate on the crystal. The pellets bounce when they hit the ground.

Ice pellets

it is easily seen and does not accumulate ice, it is not as dangerous as freezing rain.


Rime is a milky white accumulation of super-cooled cloud or fog droplets that freeze when they strike an object that has a temperature of 32 degrees F, 0 degrees C, or freezing. The process is called riming when super-cooled cloud droplets attach to ice crystals in the formation of graupel (see earlier section if you have not already for more info on graupel). Rime ice can pose a hazard to an airliner when it forms on a wing as an aircraft flies through a cloud of super-cooled droplets.

See also

Ice storms often coat many surfaces, such as trees


Book: Reference book, weather for dummies, by John D. Cox


Study guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

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Simple English

File:December 2004 Winter Storm
A Winter Storm in December 2004

Winter storms or snowstorms happen when warm, wet air meets with cold air. The warm, wet air mass and the cold air mass can each be 1000 km or more in diameter. Snowstorms affecting Northeastern United States often get their moisture from air moving north from the Gulf of Mexico and cold air from air masses coming down from the Arctic. In the Northwest United States warm, wet air from the Pacific Ocean cools when it is pushed upward by the mountains. Many different things can affect the direction of movement, moisture content and temperature of air masses. All of these differences affect the type and severity of the snowstorm.

Winter storms and blizzards can make several feet of snow that blow into big drifts. Sometimes the drifts can be over ten feet tall. They could even cover a house.


Lots of popular winter storms are part of North America's history. In 1846 the Donner Party traveled away by covered wagons from Illinois headed for Sutter's Fort near Sacramento, California. As a answer of bad decisions and slow going, they tried to go across the big Sierra Nevada Mountains in the late October. Usually, California is still warm at that time of the year. As the party crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains, they did not see any snow and was not worried. However, after they left, a huge snowstorm hit. The party was forced to camp near Truckee, California. The snow was so deep that the wagon wheels became stuck, so they could not move anyplace. They tried to wait the storm out, but when one blizzard ended, another began immediately before they had time to escape. Their food became short, so some of the people decided to hike out and find help rather than to starve to death. Most of them died in the freezing weather, and many of those who stayed behind in the camp survived. Of the 87 people who started in Illinois, only 47 lived. [1]


  1. The Weather Book. United States of America. 1997. pp. 55-56. ISBN 0-89051-211-6. 


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