A blizzard is a powerful, often destructive natural disaster. It is a severe snowstorm with high, sustained winds that can last for hours or days.
The blizzard is a uniquely North American phenomenon caused by the mixing of cold, dry air from Canada, warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, and cold, moist air from the west coast.
When all three air currents collide, the conditions are ideal for strong winds and snow. Blizzards are most common in the great plains, northeast coastal states, and states surrounding the great lakes.
Types of blizzards
Blizzards are classified into three types: snowstorms, ground blizzards, and lake-effect blizzards.
A snowstorm blizzard is a traditional blizzard with heavy snowfall, below-freezing temperatures, and winds of more than 35 miles per hour. A regular snowstorm must meet these criteria and have visibility of no more than a quarter mile (about 1,300 feet) to be classified as a blizzard.
Ground blizzards are more common, but they don’t produce much snow. Instead, strong winds swirl around the already-fallen snow.
Ground blizzards are classified into three types based on the direction of the wind and snow: horizontal advection, vertical advection, and thermal-mechanical advection (which is a combination of the first two).
Lake-effect blizzards are most common in the Great Lakes region. When cold winds blow across a relatively warm lake, blizzards form. Winds carry water vapor into the atmosphere, where it falls as snow along the shoreline.
Blizzards can cause massive damage because they combine all of the dangers of snowstorms with the ferocity of hurricanes. Livestock and other animals are at risk.
Cars and even houses can become completely submerged beneath massive snow drifts, and if roofs aren’t ripped off by the high winds, they can collapse under the weight of the snow.
And, of course, once the winds die down, all of that snow is now stuck on the ground; depending on the time of year, it could be there for a long time, blocking roads and restricting travel.
If the blizzard hit at an unseasonably late time of year, as they sometimes do, crops may not have been fully harvested and may have been damaged.
A whiteout occurs when there is so much ambient snow blowing through the air that a person can completely lose sight of the horizon, and general visibility is reduced to practically nothing.
There are numerous accounts of people seeking shelter in whiteout conditions as close as a few dozen yards away in familiar areas, such as their own backyards, only to become disoriented and lose their way.
Frostbite and hypothermia can occur much more quickly than in normal snowstorm conditions due to the chilling effects of the high winds (which can often reach hurricane-level speeds).
By the end of the 1972 blizzard in Iran, a region the size of Wisconsin had been completely covered in up to 26 feet of snow. The worst affected areas were mostly rural, with entire villages buried and no high ground to reach. Overall, 4,000 people were killed, making it the world’s deadliest blizzard by a factor of nearly ten.
The best way to survive a blizzard, like any other disaster, is to be prepared for it.
Blizzards rarely strike without warning in modern times, thanks to satellites and up-to-date news information (though snowfall amounts and storm intensity cannot be predicted for your specific location).
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be prepared at all times. Keep a well-stocked food pantry (you won’t be able to restock during the storm) and plenty of long-lasting water in your home.
When the weather gets cold enough, expect your pipes to freeze, so all the water you have in storage is all you can use. As a result, keep water supplies available in a non-freezing area of your home, and plan on having enough water on hand to provide a gallon to each person each day.
Sure, you can melt snow to make water, but that presents three challenges:
1) You’ll have to go outside to get it; 2) melting snow requires a lot of energy; and 3) you’ll have to filter it.
So, just in case, it’s a good idea to have a filter on hand in case you run out of water and need to get some more.
When the temperature drops dramatically, it is easy for pipes to freeze and burst. The Federal Emergency Management Agency advises keeping your faucets at a steady drip because even a small amount of moving water can help keep pipes from freezing.
Have the proper gear to survive blizzards
You must have a working flashlight and batteries, a charged cell phone (if towers are not affected), any medication required (insulin and EpiPens, for example), general first-aid supplies, carbon monoxide, and smoke detectors, and heating fuel or firewood.
In addition to a flashlight, keep a couple of different lanterns (battery-, solar-, or servo-powered) on hand, which are better for general use than a flashlight.
Maintain your food supply, keeping in mind that it may need to last up to seven days. Even after the storm has passed, the roads will most likely be impassable for some time, especially in areas where blizzards are uncommon.
Drinking water is also important; it’s easy to become dehydrated when the cold temperatures trick the body into thinking it’s not thirsty.
Obviously, the main issue here is heat. If you freeze to death, it makes no difference what supplies you have at home. When it’s freezing outside, and you lose power, there are a few things you can do to keep warm. Your house may not be adequate to keep you warm.
Clothing and candles are two must-haves
It’s always a good idea to layer your clothes. Begin with a moisture-wicking base layer and add as many layers as necessary. If you’re going outside, your final layer should be a waterproof shell.
Remember to bring a wool cap for your head, gloves for your hands, and thick socks for your feet. Keep a few blankets on hand to wrap around yourself or to warm up quickly after being outside.
Make an effort not to break a sweat. You’re dressed in layers so that you can shed them as your physical activity increases. Sweat could freeze, making you colder.
During a blizzard, it can also get very dark. Surprisingly, a couple of candles will keep you reasonably warm. Aside from the comfort of light and heat, candles are inexpensive and can last a long time.
It’s also a good idea to keep a couple of electric lanterns on hand. The type with a dynamo, which allows you to hand charge it if the storm lasts longer than the power, works best.
Being caught at home
Of course, the best place to ride out a blizzard is at home. You’ll be toasty and warm by the fireplace telling ghost stories to the kids while rummaging through your food supplies for supper if you’ve prepared for such an emergency.
That is not to say that all dangers have been eliminated. It’s critical to stay inside. Going outside can be extremely dangerous, depending on the severity of the storm.
There are numerous stories of people who walked off their porch into their own front yard during a whiteout and became lost, only to be discovered dead mere feet from their front door.
To save energy, close off unneeded rooms. If you have a fireplace or a wood stove going, the heat will warm the room you’re in while making the other rooms in your house colder.
Closing those rooms and stuffing towels underneath the doors and around the windows will help to insulate the room you’re in even more.
Cover the windows with a layer of plastic or blankets at night. Although some people consider a blizzard to be a beautiful natural phenomenon, the biggest heat suck in your house can be contained by keeping the windows covered at night when it’s the coldest.
If your home lacks a fireplace, consider stockpiling a space heater if your local laws allow it. A simple 5,000-BTU unit will efficiently heat a 200-square-foot room.
Being caught outside
You know when the temperatures are going to drop and when potential blizzard conditions are approaching because you pay attention to the weather and news broadcasts.
As a result, you’re more likely to dress appropriately for being outside in the winter, to begin with. That is a critical first step.
You can adjust your body temperature by adding or removing layers by layering your clothing and preparing for the worst. If you’re going to be outside for more than a few hours, it’s critical to stay hydrated. High winds can dehydrate you faster than you realize (and a well-hydrated body stays warmer).
Make every effort to avoid the wind. If you’re in a city, hide behind buildings, and if you’re in the country, hide behind large rocks—find a place where the wind won’t bother you.
If you’re stranded in a blizzard, almost every expert recommends digging a snow shelter, which is sound advice if you have the resources (a shovel or a digging tool of some kind). Snow is a fantastic insulator, as evidenced by the fact that a single candle can warm a decent-sized igloo.
However, if you don’t have digging tools, building a lean-to against the wind will help. If you don’t have a tarp or rope, huddle under the branches of a low-hanging tree or quickly gather branches and lean them against a tree or rock at a 45-degree angle.
Cover your body (and any exposed skin) as much as possible. To prevent heat loss, always wear a hat and gloves.
Simple exercises to keep warm and circulation going, but not so hard that you break a sweat.
Stay in one location for as long as it is practical and safe. Walking in deep snow can quickly exhaust the body because you’ll expend a lot of energy climbing through the snow.
Build a fire if possible, and start thinking about how to signal for help. Burn some green branches to make a lot of smoke, or write “help” in the snow with materials that contrast with the white.
If you don’t already have it, getting food will be difficult, given the blizzard’s restrictions on movement. Though the human body can survive for a few weeks without food, water is a different story.
If you have a container, such as a water bottle, but no fire to melt the snow, fill half the bottle with snow and shake it—the friction will aid in melting. Put it in your pocket or under your coat to keep it from freezing.
Being caught in your car
Being trapped in your car during a blizzard is a terrifying situation. If you’ve been stranded by snowdrifts, the best advice is to get in your car unless there’s an immediate danger.
The engine of a car can idle for quite some time. A V6 Toyota Tacoma, for example, uses about 0.3 gallons per hour, which means that its 21.1-gallon tank will be depleted after 70 hours, or nearly three days. That means you can use the heater to keep the inside of your car warm, but only for 10 or 20 minutes every hour or so.
Caution: Don’t let snow accumulate in the tailpipe, or exhaust fumes will back up into the car, and make sure your car doesn’t get covered in snow. If you smell engine fumes, keep a window slightly cracked.
If you have them, use chemical light sticks as visual markers so that would-be rescuers can see your vehicle. Tie one securely to the top of your antennae or hang one out on both sides of your car’s windows.
Keep your hazard lights turned on so that people can see you.
When it comes to food and water, it’s always a good idea to keep a couple of days’ worth of supplies in a bag accessible from the car’s cabin. Include a flashlight, a window breaker, and a radio.
The weight of the snow can cause roofs to collapse as well as trees and powerlines to fall.
They create whiteout conditions, leaving drivers and pedestrians disoriented and stranded.
They are not only some of the deadliest storms on the planet, but they are also massive and affect a large area. This will undoubtedly have an impact on services, utilities, and social infrastructure.
Winter can be brutal, and if the conditions are right, you’ll be on your own for an extended period of time, with no one to rely on but your own wits and resources.
Remember that if you plan for disaster, you’re planning for success.
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