Winter storms create risks that cause car accidents, weather-related health problems and even property damage. Winter storms come in a variety of forms, are often unpredictable and can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. When snow is involved, it’s called a snowstorm; with high winds added, a snowstorm can turn into a blizzard. A storm caused by freezing rain is an ice storm.
With winter storms come extreme cold that can lead to health risks like hypothermia and frostbite. A winter storm at its worst can cause injuries and even death. As with all emergency situations and dangerous weather conditions, the best thing to do is to prepare in the best way you can, to ensure you’ll be ready no matter where you are when a winter storm takes place.
The more you understand winter storms and the more you prepare for the possibility of a future storm, the better off you’ll be when one occurs. By preparing your house, stocking up on supplies, and by educating yourself and family members about the effects of hypothermia and other cold-related conditions, you can avoid tragedy and property damage.
Table of Contents
- What is a Snowstorm?
- What is an Ice Storm?
- How to Prepare for a Winter Storm
- What to Do During a Winter Storm
- After a Winter Storm
- Be Prepared, Be Aware, and Stay Safe
What is a Snowstorm?
A snowstorm can be anything from light snow with little accumulation to blizzard conditions, sometimes large enough to affect several states. The worst snowstorms are often accompanied by low temperatures and heavy snow that can obstruct roads, stop winter travel, cause accidents and even roof collapse. The type of snow, temperature when snow falls, wind speeds and other factors can all play a role in the severity of the winter storm.
During light winter storms, life may continue as normal for most people. When dangerously low temperatures and high winds accompany the snowstorm, routines may be disrupted.
Most snowstorms are caused when relatively warm, moist air rises over a mass of cold air. As wind circulates around the warm, moist air, this can cause wind to develop, leading to blizzard conditions.
Snowstorms can only occur when the low mass of cold air is cold enough and deep enough to create snow. If the low mass of cold air cannot support snow, the precipitation will fall as rain. The amount of snow that falls is dependent upon how fast the storm moves, how much water vapor is in the air and how fast the storm is moving.
Lake-effect snow occurs where cold air moves over a lake, picks up moisture from the body of water below, and then redistributes the moisture in a place downwind, at least 10 miles away. Snowstorms can also occur when cold air rises over mountains and drops precipitation as it moves. This is why many mountains will be covered in snow throughout the winter, often with several feet at one time.
What all this means is that snow can fall for different reasons, depending on the topography of the land and the masses of air around the land. Sometimes snow is wet and heavy; other times it is light and fluffy. The character of the snow (light versus wet and so on) can change the impact the snow will have in your area. Knowing what type of snow to expect when a storm is approaching can help you plan, so pay attention to weather reports.
Strong winds from a blizzard can cause rooftops to collapse and car accidents on the road. Blizzards can also leave people stranded on the roads in their vehicles. Because visibility may be very poor during a snowstorm, people can easily get lost outside, and can suffer from conditions like hypothermia or frostbite.
The effects of a snowstorm depend upon how severe the snowstorm is and how prepared the community is for a snowstorm to occur. In regions where snowstorms are common, people are often better prepared to weather the effects. In regions where snowstorms are uncommon, even a small snowstorm can be devastating.
What Makes a Snowstorm a Blizzard?
A blizzard is defined by the National Weather Service as a storm that involves falling or blowing snow, when winds are blowing in excess of 35 miles per hour, and visibility outside is less than a quarter of a mile. These conditions must last for at least three hours.
Sometimes people will refer to blizzard conditions, meaning that the wind is blowing in excess of 35 miles per hour, and visibility outside is very poor. However, if these conditions occur and do not last for three hours, the storm is not a blizzard. No matter whether the storm rises to the level of being a blizzard or it simply displays blizzard conditions, it’s still very important for people experiencing this kind of storm to take care to avoid injuries and property damage.
What is an Ice Storm?
An ice storm occurs when freezing rain falls and creates accumulation on the ground and on surfaces like trees, rooftops, cars and so on. Typically, an ice storm is defined as a storm that creates at least a quarter-inch of accumulation on the ground. The effects of an ice storm can be felt for days, depending on the amount of damage created and how long it takes the ice to melt. Because ice can make travel dangerous or impossible, recovery from an ice storm can be slow. People may be trapped in their houses for a long time after the ice falls, depending on how much ice is on the ground and how long it takes to get the roads cleared.
Ice storms may occur anywhere freezing temperatures occur; however, some communities may define ice storms differently. A storm called an ice storm in one place may be called a severe winter storm in another place. Whether a storm is called an ice storm or not, the best thing you can do is pay attention to weather reports to find out how much ice is expected.
Ice Storm Causes
Ice storms occur when an upper mass of air warmer than 32 degrees (0 degrees Celsius) moves over a mass of freezing air near the ground. When snow aloft falls through the air, it melts and then refreezes when it passes through a low mass of freezing air. Because ice storms involve a mass of warmer air over a mass over colder air, ice storms can occur in regions that are relatively far south. This can be especially challenging for communities in warmer southern areas, because often, these communities do not have as many resources to clear roads.
Ice Storm Effects
The effects of an ice storm can be deadly. Ice is very heavy. When it accumulates on trees, it can increase the weight of the tree’s branches by 30 times. On power lines, ice can add up to 500 extra pounds. Tree branches that hang over power lines are at risk of breaking, which in turn can lead to power outages and live wires on the ground, putting people and animals at risk for electrocution.
During an ice storm, tree branches may fall and take down power lines over a wide area, leading to widespread lack of power. Since ice storms occur at times when the temperature outside is freezing, this can create dangerously cold temperatures indoors.
The conditions outside are even less safe. Ice on the ground can lead to car accidents and slips and falls. People who slip and fall and are unable to stand, or who find themselves in car accidents outside, could be at risk for hypothermia, frostbite, and death.
Often, it is the most vulnerable people who are most at risk during ice storms. Elderly people can suffer the effects of cold weather much faster than younger people, because they lose body heat faster. When trapped in their homes without power, or when they fall down outside on their stoop, they may die if not helped quickly. The longer the ice storm lasts and the longer the icy conditions persist after the storm, the more disastrous the effects of the storm can be.
How to Prepare for a Winter Storm
The best way to ensure that you and your family will be safe during a winter storm is to be prepared. Since winter storms can take many forms, you must be ready for a variety of storm conditions, including heavy ice, heavy snow, strong winds and severely low temperatures.
Your house, car, family and pets can all be affected by winter storms. Even your ability to go to work can be impacted by a major winter storm, so when making your preparations, think through every possible scenario. By troubleshooting in advance, maintaining your home and car, making emergency plans and by developing redundant systems within the home in case one system is compromised, you can be prepared for the next winter storm.
Know Your Winter Storm Levels
When a winter storm is approaching, you may hear a variety of terms used by weather professionals and the media. Knowing and understanding terms like winter storm outlook, winter storm watch, winter weather advisory and winter storm warning can help you anticipate the coming severe weather.
- Winter storm outlook. The winter storm outlook is often set before a storm occurs in anticipation of one or many storms; the outlook is a prediction of storms to come.
- Winter storm watch. A winter storm watch occurs when conditions are favorable for a winter storm, but the storm has not yet developed.
- Winter weather advisory. An advisory is issued when 3 to 5 inches of snow is expected over the course of about 12 hours, and other conditions like sleet, freezing rain and blowing snow may occur as well.
- Freezing rain advisory. This type of advisory is issued when ice accumulation greater than a quarter of an inch is predicted.
- Winter storm warning. A winter storm warning occurs when heavy snow, greater than 6 inches in 12 hours or 8 inches in 24 hours, has been predicted.
- Blizzard warning. Blizzard warnings are issued when blizzard conditions are expected to last for at least 3 hours or more.
These warnings are broadcast on television and in the news media. It’s important to listen to the radio, watch television, read the newspaper or stay abreast of news through social media. If you are isolated from these alerts, you can easily be caught unaware and unprepared.
Make a List of Items and Tasks
Winter storms can impact so many different systems at once that preparations can be extensive and time-consuming. Make a checklist—or many checklists—to help you keep track of preparations for winter storms.
List of House Repairs and Maintenance
Make a list of house repairs and maintenance to prepare your home for a loss of power, heavy snow or ice, and sub-zero temperatures. Some items to put on your check list may include:
- Insulate pipes
- Beef up insulation in the attic and walls
- Inspect the roof and repair damage as needed
- Clean the chimney and make repairs as needed
- Install a generator and test it before each winter season
- Trim overhanging branches from trees, and remove trees that are diseased and at risk of death
List of Necessary Supplies for Home
Winter storms can trap people in their homes for hours or days, sometimes without power and access to help. At these times, it’s important to have adequate supplies on hand.
- First aid kit
- Fire extinguishers (check the expiration date, if you’ve had your fire extinguisher for a while)
- Canned food, pet food and baby food
- Sand or de-icing chemicals
- Fuel for propane tank
- Baby supplies
- Cell phone
- Portable charger
- External batteries, fully charged
- Battery-powered radio
- Clothes to stay warm indoors and out, including extra hats, mittens and long underwear
List of Necessary Supplies for Your Vehicle
- Tow chains or rope
- Windshield scraper
- Tire chains
- Booster cables
- Hazard reflectors
- Road maps
- Waterproof matches
- Some household items like water, protein bars, blankets, batteries and flashlights
Some people choose to make a winter emergency kit that contains all items above. Others choose to keep these supplies on hand but to use them in everyday life, so they do not keep them in a kit. You can decide to do whichever works for you, but remember that if you use your supplies in everyday life, you will need to keep them replenished and accessible in the event of a snowstorm.
Protect Your Family
Have a plan in place to protect your family every winter. Part of your plan will include performing the winter preparation tasks on the checklist above (like cleaning your chimney). Put the tasks on your calendar. Work with your spouse or other members of your family to ensure that each task is completed before a deadline, and remember that some winter storms can occur early in the season. Snow and ice can occur in autumn, which means that most of these tasks should be completed early in the season. Create the emergency kit for your home and car at the same time that you’re completing the tasks on your checklist.
Use these tasks to be conversation starters with members of your family. Teach children about winter storm safety and about the dangers of hypothermia. If you have nearby senior relatives, ask them what they’re doing to prepare for upcoming winter storms, and help them if they need it.
Protect Your Pets and Animals
Just like people, pets are also at risk during winter storms. When stocking up for an impending winter storm, buy extra pet supplies like litter and medications. Animals can get hypothermia just like people, and when temperatures drop, pets need to be kept close. Some animals are more vulnerable in cold weather than others. Talk to your pet’s veterinarian to find out how cold is too cold, and know the signs of hypothermia in your pet. If your pet goes outside to “do business,” keep your pet close to home or on a leash. If your pet lives outdoors, make space inside for your pet to stay warm and comfortable.
If you will be putting your outdoor pet in the garage during your next winter storm, pet-proof the space to keep your pet out of chemicals like anti-freeze. If your garage is not heated, a heated bowl and electric pet blanket can help keep your pet safe and warm. Check on your pet regularly throughout the snowstorm. Keep a thermometer in your garage to monitor the temperature. Have the phone number for an emergency veterinarian on hand in case your pet experiences a medical emergency.
Protect Your Home
When temperatures drop, homes are put under stress just like people.
Prevent Freezing Pipes
Pipes freeze when low temperatures reach extremes. In northern climates, homes tend to be well insulated, so temperatures outside must be colder for the pipes to freeze. In southern climates, where insulation requirements are more relaxed, pipes are more vulnerable to cold temperatures. As a general rule, pipes that run along outside walls and in the crawl space or basement are more likely to freeze than pipes located in the interior walls of the home. Insulate pipes to prevent them from freezing. If your pipes are not insulated, run a slow stream of water throughout the night.
Prevent Falling Branches
Trim trees to remove branches that hang over power lines, your house, your driveway and vehicle. Have this done by an arborist or landscaper every fall.
Prepare Your HVAC System
The colder it gets outside, the harder your HVAC system will have to run to keep up with the demand for heat. Inspect your furnace every year to keep it in good working condition. Change the air filter before winter comes. When a major storm occurs, if power outages are predicted for the area, plan to run the heater as high as you can until power is lost. If your furnace is barely able to keep up with normal demand, this could be a sign that you need to replace or at least repair your furnace.
What to Do Right Before the Winter Storm
The hours and days just before a winter storm can mean the difference between a comfortable and safe experience, or a disaster. This is a time to perform last-minute tasks that can help you be prepared for the snow and ice to come.
- Double check the contents of your emergency kit and replenish supplies as needed.
- Make preparations to stay home from work in the event that you will not be able to drive to your workplace safely.
- Charge external phone batteries and test batteries in radios and flashlights.
- Clear sidewalks of snow and ice that may have accumulated on the walkways.
- Prepare for evacuation orders (if evacuation orders are discussed in the news).
- Listen to the news regularly, including varying news sources.
- Bring firewood indoors for easy access.
- Bring outdoor animals inside before the temperature drops and precipitation begins.
- Check on vulnerable family members in your area to ensure they have what they need to be safe, or bring them to you.
- Make arrangements for other members of your household to stay home, whether that’s by canceling extracurricular events or by rearranging schedules.
- Avoid making plans to attend events immediately following the storm, so you will not feel pressure to leave your home if it is not safe to drive.
- Spread de-icing salts or sand around your doorway and on walkways around your house.
- Collect some games, books or other sources of safe indoor entertainment to engage in while the storm is taking place.
What to Do During a Winter Storm
Every winter storm is different. The actions you take during a storm can increase your overall comfort, if you know what to do. What you should do to stay safe depends on where you are and what tools are available to help you avoid injury.
If You’re Indoors
Usually, the safest place you can be during a winter storm is indoors. Snowstorms can lead to long hours of quiet time playing games, watching movies or reading books. This is also a time to keep up with tasks that will protect your home.
- Turn on faucets to prevent pipes from freezing; run water at a slow trickle.
- Open the cabinets in your kitchen to promote air flow and keep the space against the wall heated, thus protecting pipes on the other side.
If it can be done safely, shovel the walkways around your house early and often to prevent snow from building up. If the wind is too fierce or if there is ice on the ground, stay inside.
Watch for signs that snow accumulation on your roof is putting pressure on the house. When snowfall is deep and wet, extra weight on the roof can lead to roof collapse. This is not common, but can be very dangerous. Signs of roof and foundation stress include groaning or popping noises in the house and doors and windows that will not open or close properly.
If You’re Outdoors
Wear layered clothing outdoors to stay warm. Long underwear provides a layer of insulation that keeps body heat inside your clothes. Wear a hat, not ear muffs, and if possible, wear mittens instead of gloves. Wear snow boots with sufficient traction.
If you’re planning to shovel, stretch before going outside. Shoveling is hard work that can put stress on muscles, leading to back or leg injuries. If you have a heart condition, do not shovel unless your doctor says it is safe to do so. Walk carefully, as snow can hide many hazards. A patch of ice on the ground can send you falling. Snow can also hide tripping hazards like fallen branches.
- Walk slowly to prevent falls.
- Tell someone you’re going outside and ask them to check up on you if you aren’t back in a certain amount of time.
- Bring a cell phone with you in case you fall.
- Stop shoveling and go indoors if you start to feel ill effects.
- Limit the amount of time you plan to spend outside, even if this means you must perform your outside chores in shifts.
- Stay away from ice-covered trees.
- Stay away from downed power lines, but call your power company immediately when you see downed power lines.
If You’re Driving
Driving is dangerous during winter storms. If it’s possible to stay off the road, do so. If you can’t stay off the road, take precautions to protect yourself. Stock your car with enough supplies for each person, including blankets, food and water. Put your emergency supplies in the front, not in the trunk, in case you’re unable to reach the trunk when you need them.
Tell someone of your destination, and ask them to follow up if you don’t reach the destination in a certain period of time. Check your cell phone battery before leaving, and charge the phone with your car charger throughout the journey.
Keep the radio on and listen to talk stations that provide weather updates. Some roads may close during times of severe weather. Know your alternative route if this happens. Use GPS throughout the journey, but familiarize yourself with the roads before leaving.
Drive slowly. If you hit a patch of ice, let up on the accelerator but do not apply brakes. Do not change the direction of the wheel until you pass over the ice. Watch for signs of ice on the road. Vehicles stranded on the side of the road and unusual changes in the color of the road could be a sign that the roads are very icy.
What if You Become Stranded?
If you become stranded in your vehicle for any length of time, stay in the car. Do not leave the vehicle to walk back to safety through a snowstorm. It’s easy to become lost and disoriented in blizzard conditions.
Turn on your hazard lights if you are on a road where other drivers are likely to see you. Contact authorities from your cell phone.
Run your car’s engine 10 minutes every hour to keep the inside of your car warm. While the engine is running, crack your window to vent any carbon monoxide that could accumulate in the vehicle. Snow in the exhaust pipe could trap carbon monoxide in the car, so clear the snow from the tail pipe before running your vehicle.
Tie a brightly colored cloth to your antennae to indicate the need for help. If you’re traveling with reflectors, put the reflectors on your vehicle to call attention to it.
When running your engine, turn on the light in your vehicle’s cab to make your car visible. Do this only at night and only while the engine is running to avoid running down the battery. If there are other people in the vehicle, huddle together for warmth, wrapping blankets around you. Conserve food and water so it will last as long as possible.
After a Winter Storm
After a winter storm, the danger is not over until the snow or ice has been cleared, damage has been repaired, and life is back to normal. Listen to the radio for updates about road closures (and re-openings) and hazards that could impact you. Contact neighbors to ensure that they are safe, and begin to assess the damage. Extreme cold may still be a factor in the days following the storm. Don’t let your guard down just because the snow has stopped.
Dealing with Extreme Cold
After the storm ends, many people go outside to assess damage, shovel snow, make repairs, re-stock on supplies and check on loved ones. Protect yourself from cold temperatures. The safest place you can be is inside, but if you must go out, these tips can help.
- Wear mittens, a hat, winter boots and thick socks.
- Dress in layers.
- Wear a heavy winter coat.
- Stay hydrated.
- Go inside periodically to warm up.
- Walk carefully.
How to Identify Hypothermia and Frostbite
Bodies can be affected by severe cold in many ways. Hypothermia and frostbite are two common conditions that people experience outdoors in low temperatures.
- Loss of coordination
In its later stages, hypothermia can cause blue skin, slow pulse, dilated pupils and loss of consciousness.
Hypothermia First Aid
- Bring the victim inside and remove wet clothes
- Call for emergency services
- Warm the chest, neck and groin before warming the extremities
- Feed the victim warm beverages
- Keep the victim dry and warm
Hypothermia is a medical emergency, so do not hesitate to contact emergency services for help.
- Prickling feeling
- Waxy-looking skin
- Skin turns white, gray or black
- Skin blisters
Frostbite can be severe or mild, depending on the victim’s exposure and tolerance to cold. See a doctor to get treatment.
Frostbite First Aid
- Get out of the cold
- Rewarm the body gently
- Take a mild pain reliever
- Drink warm liquids
Frostbite should be seen and treated by a doctor, but may not be the emergency situation that hypothermia is. However, a person who is experiencing frostbite may also be experiencing hypothermia. Watch frostbite victims for symptoms of hypothermia, and contact emergency services if symptoms occur.
Recovering from Property Damage
Following the snowstorm, inspect your property to look for all possible damage. Don’t start repairs until you’ve seen the entire property.
If your home is not damaged, you’ll still have some chores to do before life can return to normal. Clear snow off the roof with a roof rake. This prevents heavy snow from putting pressure on your home, and it can also stop an ice dam from forming. If you don’t have a roof rake, or if you’re just not comfortable raking the snow off your roof, contact a roofing contractor to do the work for you. If clearing the snow off your roof, work with a partner. Never work alone.
Property damage after a storm may be extensive. Take pictures of the damage before repairs and after repairs, especially if you’re planning to file a claim with your homeowners insurance company. If you do plan to file a claim, contact your homeowners insurance company before getting started on the work. Work with a licensed contractor when making repairs that require a contractor, to ensure that the work is done properly.
Be Prepared, Be Aware, and Stay Safe
There’s nothing you can do to stop winter storms from happening, but you can be ready for them when they occur. When getting ready for a winter storm, keep the needs of your family, pets and home in mind. Be aware of the symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia. Review your checklists seasonally and keep them up to date. What you do to prepare for a winter storm may change over time as the size of your family changes and as the condition of your property changes. Make adjustments to your emergency checklists as needed. Most importantly, stay safe.