Thursday, December 5, 2019

Blizzards (not from Dairy Queen)

Up here in the northern plains we have a weather condition that most of the country doesn't have to deal with: blizzards. The definition of a blizzard is “a severe snowstorm characterized by strong sustained winds of at least 56 km/h (35 mph) and lasting for a prolonged period of time” and I've seen more than a few. 
  • 1977 was a nasty one, with no school for a week and the Interstate highways were closed for three days; secondary roads didn't get cleared for a week and some of the country roads were buried for three weeks. 
  • 1986 was a sudden blast that surprised a lot people. I was visiting my parents and couldn't make it to the highway for two days. Power lines went down in both of those storms, adding to the experience. 
  • 2010 gave us a 12 hour storm that shut down all travel for a day and slowed everything for another three days. If you have a spare hour to watch a documentary, here's one about a blizzard that hit shortly before my time (1949).
We don't normally see the huge snowfalls that occur in the mountains, measuring our normal accumulations in inches rather than feet. We do however see at least one good blizzard up here every year, with the bad years giving us one or two a month from December to March. The natives are used to it and tend to be prepared, but the transplants from the warmer states need to experience one or two blizzards to get the hint.

We're not talking about the Christmas card type of snow! Blizzards tend to hit hard and fast. Wet air from the Gulf of Mexico meeting cold air from the North Pole is a recipe for snow, and fly-over country is where the two like to dance. Thunder and lightning during a snowstorm is usually a bad sign, since they're indications that there is a lot of energy built up in the storm clouds, so thundersnow is a warning that you need to check your supplies.

A typical blizzard for my area will have 12-20 inches of snow over a day or two, which is enough to cause “white-out” conditions, which is when you look out the window and don't see anything but snow. Falling and blowing snow can cut visibility to less than 10 feet, so travel is not an option.

The dangerous part of a blizzard is the wind. Once the snow stops falling, the wind pushes it around into drifts that reform as soon as they are cleared. The winds coming down out of Canada have few natural barriers, so anything that sticks up more than a couple of feet will create a drift.

For those of you who have never seen much snow, think of sand dunes and how they shift and form; snow drifts form from the same action of wind, but being made of smaller particles they form faster and have a higher angle of repose which allows them to build to higher, steeper, piles. Sustained winds will reform drifts over roads almost as fast as a plow can clear them, and I've seen this happen many times.

How do we prepare for weather like this? The basics don't change: food, water, shelter, and heat are the priorities. There are plenty of articles in our archives that cover these areas, so use the search box in the upper left corner if you want to see them.

Blizzards are a good reason for "bugging in" because "bugging out" is no longer an option. I keep a stocked pantry and more warm clothes/blankets than I really need on hand to stay fed and warm. Water isn't much of an issue as long as it's snowing and my house has a steep roof to shed snow. I also have a good library to keep me entertained, and I can read by oil lamps if the power goes out.

The one abnormal thing that we have to deal with is other people. I live near an Interstate highway, and the DOT installed gates on it a few years ago. When the weather gets too bad, they close the highway and force all of the traffic into small towns. We have limited motel rooms available, so the local community center and high school get turned into emergency shelters for stranded travelers. Society has evolved past the point of people taking strangers into their homes, but if there is any shared relationship or good common friends, it can still happen.

Here's to hoping we have a quiet winter, but preparing for whatever comes our way.

1 comment:

  1. I want to point out one additional hazard, the rapid drop in temperature. The 1940 Armistice Day blizzard and the 1950 Thanksgiving Day blizzard caught people unawares. Temperatures before the blizzards hit were as high as 50F and as low as 5F within a few hours.



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