Weather blog | Weather Academy Extra: Snow squalls causing problems just like thunderstorms

Posted at 11:29 AM, Feb 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-23 12:29:44-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Happy Thursday, Weather blog readers!

Every week we air a segment called Weather Academy where I give you a quick explainer on different weather phenomena throughout the year.

This week, I wanted to focus on snow squalls as a big winter storm is impacting the Mountain West and the upper Midwest.

First, what is a snow squall?

It's essentially a winter version of a squall line of thunderstorms as the physical mechanisms that cause these to form are very similar.

Relatively warmer air rising above relatively cooler air due to a difference in density.

Snow Squall Diagram
Squall Line Thunderstorms

Both types have heavy precipitation, strong winds, and cooler air moving in afterward.

Five states were impacted by snow squalls(purple polygons) on Wednesday: Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Utah, and New Mexico.

Wednesday Snow Squall

Notice where the polygons are located, near or along highways and interstates. That's because snow squalls cause a sudden change in visibility and road conditions, resulting in traffic accidents.

Snow squalls also have a unique feature that makes them arguably worse than a thunderstorm squall: the ability to freeze.

Sometimes falling snow from squall lines will melt when hitting the pavement resulting in wet or slushy roads initially. But as the cold Arctic air moves through, a 'flash freeze' occurs causing all the liquid and slush to become ice.

So as drivers go into a snow squall visibility drops, drivers can apply breaks but are unable to stop the vehicle because the road is now ice, resulting in massive pile ups.

For a local perspective, our National Weather Services offices in Pleasant Hill and Topeka have never issued a snow squall warning, which were first issued in 2019 in effort to reduce those massive pile ups.

These are treated like severe thunderstorm warnings, a line of heavy snow moving through an area lasting 30-60 minutes. Although they brings similar conditions, don't confuse them with a blizzard which can last hours or days.

Alerts for these will be sent to your phone and on electronic billboards telling drivers to stay off the roads until the squall has passed.

It's a good idea now that you ensure your phone's wireless emergency alerts are turned on for incoming spring severe weather.

For more information on Weather Academy or weather updates follow me on all social media platforms @WesWeather.