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Blizzard Safety

Updated on July 3, 2017

For some, wintertime is an opportunity to engage in winter-related recreational sports such as skiing, sledding, and snowboarding. But outside of those recreational breaks, life goes on. This means that for other times, wintertime can often present weather conditions which can disrupt daily life—if not threaten life under certain conditions. Among these threatening, and dangerous wintertime weather conditions are blizzards.

What Are Blizzards?

Blizzards are dangerous winter storms that are a combination of blowing snow and driving winds resulting in very low visibilities. While heavy snowfalls and severe cold often accompany blizzards, they are not required. Sometimes strong winds pick up snow that has already fallen, creating a ground blizzard.

Officially, the National Weather Service (NWS) defines a blizzard as a winter storm which contains:

  • Large amounts of falling snow OR blowing snow…
  • AND accompanied by winds of 35 mph (56 km/h) or higher…
  • AND visibilities of less than 1/4 mile (0.40 km)…
  • ...for an extended period of time (at least 3 or more hours).

When these conditions are expected, the National Weather Service will issue a Blizzard Warning. In most cases, a Blizzard Warning will be issued between 12- 48 hours of the development of blizzard conditions.

More often than not, these conditions do not occur simultaneously. Indeed, in most cases only one or two of these conditions tend to occur at any given time during organized winter weather systems. When any one or two of these conditions occur at a given time, the NWS will issue a Winter Storm Warning or Heavy Snow Warning—instead of a Blizzard Warning—for the affected area.

Where Do Blizzards Occur The Most?

In the U.S., blizzards can occur in any location that regularly experiences snowfall during the winter months. However, the Upper Midwest, as well as large parts of the Great Plains regions tends experience blizzards most often. Quite often, the lack of trees, large man-made structures (such as tall buildings), and geographical obstructions (e.g., hills) that could otherwise reduce wind and blowing snow tends to make this part of the country particularly vulnerable to blizzards.

What Makes a Blizzard Dangerous?

Blizzards can create life-threatening conditions, particularly for those attempting to travel during the winter. Traveling by automobile can become difficult or even impossible due to “whiteout” conditions created by blowing and/or drifting snow. These condition can easily halt drivers in their tracks, as they attempt to drive in these hazardous conditions...increasing the likelihood of dangerous--even fatal car accidents.

These whiteout conditions occur most often with blizzards and major snowstorms that produce a drier, more powdery-type of snow. In fact, snow needn’t even be falling as precipitation to produce whiteout conditions; heavy snow which is already on the ground and blown around by heavy winds can cause a reduction in visibility to near zero at times.

A December 19-20, 2012 blizzard in Iowa
A December 19-20, 2012 blizzard in Iowa

In addition to blinding and/or heavy snow and the loss of visibility, the strong winds and cold temperatures accompanying blizzards can combine to create additional dangers to those exposed to these conditions. During blizzards, the presence of cold temperatures, blowing wet snow, and strong winds tends to intensify a phenomenon known as “wind chill factor.” The wind chill factor is the amount of cooling a person "feels" on their skins due to being exposed to the combination of particularly strong winds and cold temperatures during the winter. Exposure to such low wind chill values can result in frostbite (a type of cold-weather injury that causes freezing of the skin and underlying tissues caused by exposure of parts of the body to the cold) or hypothermia (a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature). It is not uncommon in the Midwest to have wind chills below -60 F (-61 C) during blizzard conditions.

Blizzards also can cause a variety of other problems. Power outages can occur due to strong winds and heavy snow, which can increase the number of people at-risk for hypothermia due to the loss of indoor heat. Additionally, water pipes can freeze, affecting drinking water supplies as well as affecting sanitation for those indoors.

What to Do

For those living in areas susceptible to blizzards during the winter months, being proactive is advisable to being reactive. That is to say, planning ahead—even before winter sets in—is the most effective strategy for coping for potential blizzard emergencies.

Before A Blizzard

Keep abreast of severe weather and related news with working media-conveying devices. A weather radio is the best way to keep up with the latest weather watches and warnings. These special types of radios will issue a warning alarm, followed by a broadcast of adverse (or dangerous) weather conditions affecting a given geographical area. It is also a good idea to plan to keep the batteries of devices such as internet-capable tablets, cell phones, and computers charged. Consider using battery-powered portable televisions and radios—with extra batteries for every regularly-used device—or hand-cranks to keep up with weather and news reports when winter begins.

In the months before the start of the winter season, it is advisable to purchase and stock up on anticipated needs. This includes, or course, food and water first and foremost (a minimum of a 3-day supply). Dry foods, prepackaged foods, and/or foods that require little or no preparation (i.e., cooking) are the best options. Even better, dehydrated military-style food rations can provide an adequate emergency food supply, without taking up an additional amount of space for storage. Not only do these particular types of foods store well (for an extended period of time) without spoilage, but in the event of a power loss, such food types can be readily consumed without the issue of cooking without electricity. Additionally, extra bottles or jugs of water should be stored in the event of frozen pipes. Extra bottled water may also be used for dehydrated food, as well as to supplement meals.

Types of consumption-ready foods that should make up stored emergency food supplies, as they tend to have extended shelf lives
Types of consumption-ready foods that should make up stored emergency food supplies, as they tend to have extended shelf lives

Also, it’s a good idea to purchase and store emergency medical kits and/or first-aid supplies. Items such as bandages, disinfectants, over-the-counter pain-relievers, ointments, and such may be needed in case of minor injuries…since drugstores may close during a snow emergency (and driving, which is not advised, may be all but impossible anyway).

An alternative source of lighting—in case of (a) power loss—might also be considered for purchase, to be stored until needed. Battery-powered flashlights, glow sticks, and—as a final resort—candles (and matches) will provide a means to see if electricity is affected. It should be noted that candles are discouraged for the reason that they present a potential fire hazard.

Assorted emergency supplies that might come in handy during a blizzard
Assorted emergency supplies that might come in handy during a blizzard

If a Blizzard Warning is issued, pets/companion animals should be brought inside, or moved to an enclosed warm area. Move other animals or livestock to sheltered areas and make sure that their access to food and water is not blocked by snow drifts, ice or other obstacles.

During a Blizzard

Pay attention to news and weather reports, via a weather radio, television, broadcast radio, or internet updates.

As most people will—in all probability—be sheltering in place in their homes, it will be just as important to prepare for actual blizzard conditions. And despite being indoors, people can be just as susceptible to particular hazards caused by blizzard conditions.

Pay attention to news and weather reports, via a weather radio, television, broadcast radio, or internet updates.

As most people will—in all probability—be sheltering in place in their homes, it will be just as important to prepare for actual blizzard conditions. And despite being indoors, people can be just as susceptible to particular hazards caused by blizzard conditions.

  • Frozen pipes. As mentioned previously, cold temperatures can cause water flowing through pipes, particularly those made of metals, to freeze. This can affect water flow throughout homes and buildings, affecting—among other things—the use of bathrooms and access to drinking water. It is advisable to turn on water faucets slightly, so that a steady low stream of water is allowed to flow. Also, kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors should be opened to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing. This will help prevent pipes from freezing.

  • Drafts. Air pockets are a constant issue, especially with older homes and buildings. Air pockets create drafts that allow the loss of much-needed heat. Keep the doors to unused rooms closed, and ensure that cracks are sealed to prevent escaping warm air. The doors to attached garages should also be closed for the same reasons.

  • Heating. Thermostats should be set and remain at the same temperature both during the day and at night. This will help keep heating bills low, and further prevent water pipes from freezing.

  • Clothing. Wear more clothes than normal. Dressing in layers of loose-fitting, lightweight clothing will help those taking shelter at home to stay warm, as well as help maintain heating costs incurred from running thermostats as higher temperatures.

  • Avoid alcohol. It may seem strange, but drinking alcohol during cold weather possesses several health dangers. First, it’s dehydrating, which is often problematic because people are less aware of their hydration level during cold weather months than warm (even though it’s possible to be dehydrated year round). Additionally, alcohol makes it more difficult for the body to tell how cold it is. This means that the “feel better” aspect of drinking can serve as a blinder to the onset hypothermia due to affecting the body’s primary warming mechanism in cold weather—shivering. This can result in the loss of more body heath than normal.

As always, the key to maintaining a minimal level of disruption to daily life during a blizzard is to have a plan. Anticipate and plan for contingencies (i,e,. "needs") that may come up in the event of this particular weather event. Consider the issues that may arise and purchase (and store) items that may be needed. Planning for severe weather can help to alleviate added stress to a situation that can already be stressful enough--without having to react out of desperation.

You can find more in-depth information related to blizzard safety in publications, such as "The No-Nonsense Guide To Blizzard Safety, Enhanced Edition," by Jeffery D. Sims


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