Thundersnow… if there’s a more awesome-sounding meteorological phenomenon, then bring it on! While the name “Thundersnow” is eminently suitable for a Marvel superhero, a WWE wrestler or a heavy metal band, it’s actually an easily explainable (though rare and unusual) aspect of wild winter weather.
Thundersnow, The Other White Noise
Thundersnow is one of those odd occurrences that, while fully natural, just seem somehow “not right.” You’ve got your thunderstorms, which we associate with hot and humid summer days. You’ve got your snow, either blown forcefully by howling winter winds or delicately falling in silent flotillas of frilly flakes. But thunder? In my snowstorm? It’s not only less likely than you think, it’s not likely period.
(image via: Night Sky Hunter)
Not likely perhaps but far from impossible, when one considers the same basic “weather physics” that spawn thunder and lightning can occur any time of the year, in any temperature range. What’s required above all is a powerful storm system that features significant vertical mixing of air masses resulting in a separation of positive and negative electrical charges.
Ice crystals are also seen as a catalyst for lightning formation; even in summer thunderstorms. A severe winter storm creates more than enough ice crystals to go around and their presence in cold-weather supercell systems may act to promote lightning strikes regardless of the lower degree (pun intended) of heat energy in winter storm clouds.
Though thundersnow isn’t a component of every blizzard, the aforementioned conditions that are most conducive to thundersnow also frequently produce high winds, heavy snowfalls, severe drifting and whiteouts. If you can hear thundersnow, be thankful you’re indoors or feel anxious if you aren’t. An erstwhile cameraman from Dundee, Scotland managed to capture multiple thundersnow lightning strikes on a wind turbine outside the city’s Michelin works. Image at above top, video goodness below:
Shocks and Awe
The fact that thundersnow often accompanies strong storms producing heavy snowfalls – up to 4 inches per hour in some cases – means that the phenomenon is occasionally observed inadvertently by weathermen (weatherpeople?) who are familiar with the phenomenon… or should we say, “should” be familiar.
(images via: Daily Mail UK)
Take Jim Cantore (above), for instance. The long-time Weather Channel on-air personality and storm tracker has acquired a reputation for really getting into his work, usually on live TV broadcasts. You’d think nothing weather-wise could faze Cantore but a 1996 thundersnow event in Worcester, MA, definitely threw him for a loop. It even made his “Best of Cantore” 25-year video retrospective. Here, check this out:
Fifteen years later, thundersnow still has the ability to astound the so-called “Thundersnow King” but Cantore’s thermodynamic theatrics aside, thundersnow is indeed rare if one goes by the official stats. A variety of sources referencing the NOAA note that between 1961 and 1990, only 375 occurrences of thundersnow were officially recorded with the state of Utah accounting for 36 of those events.
(image via: Zazzle)
Thundersnow’s rarity may be somewhat of an illusion, however. Meteorological research has uncovered the fact that falling snow acts as an acoustic suppressor. That is, sounds emanating from within or behind a curtain of snow are effectively muffled. It’s estimated that thundersnow can be heard up to 3 miles from an individual lightning strike while in run-of-the-mill rainy thunderstorms the hearing distance is roughly double. So then, if a lightning bolt falls from a winter thunderstorm and no one is within 3 to 6 miles to hear it, does it make a sound?
Thanks, It’s Been A Wintery Blast
“Thunder shook loose hail on the outhouse again…” The eerie opening lyric from Magazine’s disturbing 1979 track “Permafrost” may be the only musical reference to thundersnow, albeit indirectly as hail often falls during summer thunderstorms. What’s worse, sitting in an outhouse during a hailstorm or while thundersnow rattles the walls? Perhaps being in an outhouse in winter, under ANY circumstances, is frightening enough in itself.
Thundersnow, as awesome and unexpected as it is, surprisingly hasn’t made much impact on pop culture. When the writers of 1987’s The Running Man needed a name for an especially chilling villain, they picked Sub-Zero… isn’t that a refrigerator? Sub-Zero later inspired the creation of SubZero, who appears in the Mortal Combat universe.
Even Batman blew it, bringing in Mr. Freeze when “Thundersnow!” was a much better bet to finally kick the Caped Crusader’s ice. Then there’s Thundersnow Ice Cream Cone Guy… talk about yer 15 seconds of fame.
(image via: Texas A&M News)
Perhaps thundersnow’s time to shine has yet to come. Weather channels the world over are pumping the Storm Chaser gig for all it’s worth, while at the same time the popularity of YouTube and the improving attributes of mobile phone cameras have turned almost anyone into an amateur weather reporter. With that said, thundersnow may indeed come out of the dark someday… but it’ll never come in from the cold.