The Science of Blizzards: The Truth Behind Thundersnow

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We have certain expectations in life. Peanut butter is often accompanied by jelly. Cookies should be served with milk. Thunderstorms involve rain, not snow. And blizzards are curiously quiet affairs.

But then something like thundersnow comes along (see above), and it seems all bets are off.

When thunder and lightning strike in a snowstorm, it can even surprise meteorologists, as Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel made clear a few days ago. Among his exclamations: “That’s unbelievable!” “Holy smoke!” “Just incredible!” “Twice in one storm, baby!”

Thundersnow is uncommon — according to the National Weather Service (NWS), “less than one tenth of one percent of reported snowfalls are associated with lightning and thunder” — but it isn’t anything new. Recently, many people, from Chicago to New York City, had the chance to witness it.

We’ve had a lot of big storms this winter (you may have noticed?) and Paul Kocin of the NWS’ Hydrometeorological Prediction Center says that they tend to be the kind that can bring thundersnow. “Thunder and lightning require fast–rising air,” Kocin points out, and while that requirement is met more often in warmer seasons, it can still happen in the winter. It turns out those strong storms that leave many of us stranded sure can get the air moving.

(More on Top 10 Big, Bad Blizzards)

And incongruous as it is, thundersnow, Cantore reminds us, can be delightful. Feel free to sing in the snow.