A blizzard is a severe snowstorm characterized by strong sustained winds of at least 56 km/h (35 mph) and lasting for a prolonged period of time--typically three hours or more. A ground blizzard is a weather condition where snow is not falling but loose snow on the ground is lifted and blown by strong winds. Blizzards can have an immense size and usually stretch to hundreds or thousands of kilometres.
In the United States, the National Weather Service defines a blizzard as a severe snowstorm characterized by strong winds causing blowing snow that results in low visibilities. The difference between a blizzard and a snowstorm is the strength of the wind, not the amount of snow. To be a blizzard, a snow storm must have sustained winds or frequent gusts that are greater than or equal to 56 km/h (35 mph) with blowing or drifting snow which reduces visibility to 400 m or 0.25 mi or less and must last for a prolonged period of time--typically three hours or more.
While severe cold and large amounts of drifting snow may accompany blizzards, they are not required. Blizzards can bring whiteout conditions, and can paralyze regions for days at a time, particularly where snowfall is unusual or rare.
A severe blizzard has winds over 72 km/h (45 mph), near zero visibility, and temperatures of -12 °C (10 °F) or lower. In Antarctica, blizzards are associated with winds spilling over the edge of the ice plateau at an average velocity of 160 km/h (99 mph).
Ground blizzard refers to a weather condition where loose snow or ice on the ground is lifted and blown by strong winds. The primary difference between a ground blizzard as opposed to a regular blizzard is that in a ground blizzard no precipitation is produced at the time, but rather all the precipitation is already present in the form of snow or ice at the surface.
The Australia Bureau of Meteorology describes a blizzard as, "Violent and very cold wind which is laden with snow, some part, at least, of which has been raised from snow covered ground."
The Oxford English Dictionary concludes the term blizzard is likely onomatopoeic, derived from the same sense as blow, blast, blister, and bluster; the first recorded use of it for weather dates to 1829, when it was defined as a "violent blow". It achieved its modern definition by 1859, when it was in use in the western United States. The term became common in the press during the harsh winter of 1880-81.
In the United States, storm systems powerful enough to cause blizzards usually form when the jet stream dips far to the south, allowing cold, dry polar air from the north to clash with warm, humid air moving up from the south.
When cold, moist air from the Pacific Ocean moves eastward to the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, and warmer, moist air moves north from the Gulf of Mexico, all that is needed is a movement of cold polar air moving south to form potential blizzard conditions that may extend from the Texas Panhandle to the Great Lakes and Midwest. A blizzard also may be formed when a cold front and warm front mix together and a blizzard forms at the border line.
Another storm system occurs when a cold core low over the Hudson Bay area in Canada is displaced southward over southeastern Canada, the Great Lakes, and New England. When the rapidly moving cold front collides with warmer air coming north from the Gulf of Mexico, strong surface winds, significant cold air advection, and extensive wintry precipitation occur.
Conditions approaching a blizzard whiteout in Minnesota, on March 1, 2007. Note the unclear horizon near the center.
Low pressure systems moving out of the Rocky Mountains onto the Great Plains, a broad expanse of flat land, much of it covered in prairie, steppe and grassland, can cause thunderstorms and rain to the south and heavy snows and strong winds to the north. With few trees or other obstructions to reduce wind and blowing, this part of the country is particularly vulnerable to blizzards with very low temperatures and whiteout conditions. In a true whiteout there is no visible horizon. People can become lost in their own front yards, when the door is only 3 m (10 ft) away, and they would have to feel their way back. Motorists have to stop their cars where they are, as the road is impossible to see.
Illustration of the Great Blizzard of 1888
A nor'easter is a macro-scale storm that occurs off the New England and Atlantic Canada coastlines. It gets its name from the direction the wind is coming from. The usage of the term in North America comes from the wind associated with many different types of storms some of which can form in the North Atlantic Ocean and some of which form as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. The term is most often used in the coastal areas of New England and Atlantic Canada. This type of storm has characteristics similar to a hurricane. More specifically it describes a low-pressure area whose center of rotation is just off the coast and whose leading winds in the left-forward quadrant rotate onto land from the northeast. High storm waves may sink ships at sea and cause coastal flooding and beach erosion. Notable nor'easters include The Great Blizzard of 1888, one of the worst blizzards in U.S. history. It dropped 100-130 cm (40-50 in) of snow and had sustained winds of more than 45 miles per hour (72 km/h) that produced snowdrifts in excess of 50 feet (15 m). Railroads were shut down and people were confined to their houses for up to a week. It killed 400 people, mostly in New York.
1972 Iran blizzard
The 1972 Iran Blizzard, which caused 4,000 reported deaths, was the deadliest blizzard in recorded history. Dropping as much as 26 feet (7.9 m) of snow, it completely covered 200 villages. After a snowfall lasting nearly a week, an area the size of Wisconsin was entirely buried in snow.
The Snow Winter of 1880-1881
A snow blockade in southern Minnesota, central US. On March 29, 1881, snowdrifts in Minnesota were higher than locomotives.
The winter of 1880-1881 is widely considered the most severe winter ever known in parts of the United States. Many children--and their parents--learned of "The Snow Winter" through the children's book The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in which the author tells of her family's efforts to survive. The snow arrived in October 1880 and blizzard followed blizzard throughout the winter and into March 1881, leaving many areas snowbound throughout the entire winter. Accurate details in Wilder's novel include the blizzards' frequency and the deep cold, the Chicago and North Western Railway stopping trains until the spring thaw because the snow made the tracks impassable, the near-starvation of the townspeople, and the courage of her future husband Almanzo and another man, who ventured out on the open prairie in search of a cache of wheat that no one was even sure existed.
The October blizzard brought snowfalls so deep that two-story homes had snow up to the second floor windows. No one was prepared for the deep snow so early in the season and farmers all over the region were caught before their crops had even been harvested, their grain milled, or with their fuel supplies for the winter in place. By January the train service was almost entirely suspended from the region. Railroads hired scores of men to dig out the tracks but it was a wasted effort: As soon as they had finished shoveling a stretch of line, a new storm arrived, filling up the line and leaving their work useless.
Stereoscopic view card showing "Blasting ice with dynamite from in front of steamer on the ways, by Stanley J. Morrow" ~ A view of Yankton's riverfront after the flood of March 1881.
There were no winter thaws and on February 2, 1881, a second massive blizzard struck that lasted for nine days. In the towns the streets were filled with solid drifts to the tops of the buildings and tunneling was needed to secure passage about town. Homes and barns were completely covered, compelling farmers to tunnel to reach and feed their stock.
When the snow finally melted in late spring of 1881, huge sections of the plains were flooded. Massive ice jams clogged the Missouri River and when they broke the downstream areas were ravaged. Most of the town of Yankton, in what is now South Dakota, was washed away when the river overflowed its banks.
The Storm of the Century, also known as the Great Blizzard of 1993, was a large cyclonic storm that formed over the Gulf of Mexico on March 12, 1993, and dissipated in the North Atlantic Ocean on March 15. It is unique for its intensity, massive size and wide-reaching effect. At its height, the storm stretched from Canada towards Central America, but its main impact was on the United States and Cuba. The cyclone moved through the Gulf of Mexico, and then through the Eastern United States before moving into Canada. Areas as far south as northern Alabama and Georgia received a dusting of snow and areas such as Birmingham, Alabama, received up to 12 in (30 cm)  with hurricane-force wind gusts and record low barometric pressures. Between Louisiana and Cuba, hurricane-force winds produced high storm surges across northwestern Florida, which along with scattered tornadoes killed dozens of people. In the United States, the storm was responsible for the loss of electric power to over 10 million customers. It is purported to have been directly experienced by nearly 40 percent of the country's population at that time. A total of 310 people, including 10 from Cuba, perished during this storm. The storm cost $6 to $10 billion in damages.
List of blizzards
1700 to 1799
The Great Snow 1717 series of four snowstorms between February 27 and March 7, 1717. There were reports of about five feet of snow already on the ground when the first of the storms hit. By the end, there were about ten feet of snow and some drifts reaching 25 feet, burying houses entirely. In the colonial era, this storm made travel impossible until the snow simply melted.
Blizzard of 1765. March 24, 1765. Affected area from Philadelphia to Massachusetts. High winds and over two feet of snowfall recorded in some areas.
Blizzard of 1772. "The Washington and Jefferson Snowstorm of 1772". January 26-29, 1772. One of largest D.C. and Virginia area snowstorms ever recorded. Snow accumulations of 3 feet recorded.
The "Hessian Storm of 1778". December 26, 1778. Severe blizzard with high winds, heavy snows and bitter cold extending from Pennsylvania to New England. Snow drifts reported to be 15 feet high in Rhode Island. Storm named for stranded Hessian troops in deep snows stationed in Rhode Island during the Revolutionary War.
The Great Snow of 1786. December 4-10, 1786. Blizzard conditions and a succession of three harsh snowstorms produced snow depths of 2 to 4 feet from Pennsylvania to New England. Reportedly of similar magnitude of 1717 snowstorms.
The Long Storm of 1798. November 19-21, 1798. Heavy snowstorm produced snow from Maryland to Maine.
1800 to 1850
Blizzard of 1805. January 26-28, 1805. Cyclone brought heavy snowstorm to New York City and New England. Snow fell continuously for two days where over 2 feet of snow accumulated.
New York City Blizzard of 1811. December 23-24, 1811. Severe blizzard conditions reported on Long Island, in New York City, and southern New England. Strong winds and tides caused damage to shipping in harbor.
Luminous Blizzard of 1817. January 17, 1817. In Massachusetts and Vermont, a severe snowstorm was accompanied by frequent lightning and heavy thunder. St. Elmo's fire reportedly lit up trees, fence posts, house roofs, and even people. John Farrar professor at Harvard, recorded the event in his memoir in 1821.
Great Snowstorm of 1821. January 5-7, 1821. Extensive snowstorm and blizzard spread from Virginia to New England.
Winter of Deep Snow in 1830. December 29, 1830. Blizzard storm dumped 36" in Kansas City and 30" in Illinois. Areas experienced repeated storms thru mid-February 1831.
"The Great Snowstorm of 1831" January 14-16, 1831. Produced snowfall over widest geographic area that was only rivaled, or exceeded by, the 1993 Blizzard. Blizzard raged from Georgia, to Ohio Valley, all the way to Maine.
"The Big Snow of 1836" January 8-10, 1836. Produced 30 to 40" of snowfall in interior New York, northern Pennsylvania, and western New England. Philadelphia got a reported 15" and New York City 2 feet of snow.
1851 to 1900
Plains Blizzard of 1856. December 3-5, 1856. Severe blizzard-like storm raged for three days in Kansas and Iowa. Early pioneers suffered.
"The Cold Storm of 1857" January 18-19, 1857. Produced severe blizzard conditions from North Carolina to Maine. Heavy snowfalls reported in east coast cities.
Midwest Blizzard of 1864. January 1, 1864. Gale-force winds, driving snow, and low temperatures all struck simultaneously around Chicago, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Plains Blizzard of 1873. January 7, 1873. Severe blizzard struck the Great Plains. Many pioneers from the east were unprepared for the storm and perished in Minnesota and Iowa.
Great Plains Easter Blizzard of 1873. April 13, 1873
Seattle Blizzard of 1880. January 6, 1880. Seattle area's greatest snowstorm to date. An estimated four feet fell around the town. Many barns collapsed and all transportation halted.
In the three year winter period from December 1885 to March 1888, the Great Plains and Eastern United States suffered a series of the worst blizzards in this nation's history ending with the Schoolhouse Blizzard and the Great NYC Blizzard of 1888. The massive explosion of the volcano Krakatoa in the South Pacific late in August 1883 is a suspected cause of these huge blizzards during these several years. The clouds of ash it emitted continued to circulate around the world for many years. Weather patterns continued to be chaotic for years, and temperatures did not return to normal until 1888. Record rainfall was experienced in Southern California during July 1883 to June 1884. The Krakatoa eruption injected an unusually large amount of sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas high into the stratosphere which reflects sunlight and helped cool the planet over the next few years until the suspended atmospheric sulfur fell to ground.
Plains Blizzard of late 1885. In Kansas, heavy snows of late 1885 had piled drifts ten feet high.
Kansas Blizzard of 1886. First week of January 1886. Reported that 80 percent of the cattle were frozen to death in that state alone from the cold and snow.
Great Plains Blizzards of late 1886. On November 13, 1886 it reportedly began to snow and did not stop for a month in the Great Plains region.
Great Plains Blizzard of 1887. January 9-11, 1887. Reported 72-hour blizzard that covered parts of the Great Plains in more than 16 inches of snow. Winds whipped and temperatures dropped to around -50F. So many cows that were not killed by the cold soon died from starvation. When spring arrived, millions of the animals were dead, with around 90 percent of the open range's cattle rotting where they fell. Those present reported carcasses as far as the eye could see. Dead cattle clogged up rivers and spoiled drinking water. Many ranchers went bankrupt and others simply called it quits and moved back east. The "Great Die-Up" from the blizzard effectively concluded the romantic period of the great Plains cattle drives.
Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888 North American Great Plains. January 12-13, 1888. What made the storm so deadly was the timing (during work and school hours), the suddenness, and the brief spell of warmer weather that preceded it. In addition, the very strong wind fields behind the cold front and the powdery nature of the snow reduced visibilities on the open plains to zero. People ventured from the safety of their homes to do chores, go to town, attend school, or simply enjoy the relative warmth of the day. As a result, thousands of people--including many schoolchildren--got caught in the blizzard.
Great Blizzard of March 1888 March 11-14, 1888. One of the most severe recorded blizzards in the history of the United States. On March 12, an unexpected northeaster hit New England and the mid-Atlantic, dropping up to 50 in (130 cm) of snow in the space of three days. New York City experienced its heaviest snowfall recorded to date at that time, all street railcars were stranded, and the storm lead to the creation of the NYC subway system. Snowdrifts reached up to the second story of some buildings. Some 400 people died from this blizzard, including many sailors aboard vessels that were beset by gale-force winds and turbulent seas.
Great Blizzard of 1899 February 11-14, 1899. An extremely unusual blizzard in that it reached into the far southern states of the US. It hit in February, and the area around Washington, D.C., experienced 51 hours straight of snowfall. The port of New Orleans was totally iced over; revelers participating in the New Orleans Mardi Gras had to wait for the parade routes to be shoveled free of snow. Concurrent with this blizzard was the extremely cold arctic air. Many city and state record low temperatures date back to this event, including all-time records for locations in the Midwest and South. State record lows: Nebraska reached -47 °F (-44 °C), Ohio experienced -39 °F (-39 °C), Louisiana bottomed out at -16 °F (-27 °C), and Florida dipped below zero to -2 °F (-19 °C).
Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 November 10-12, 1940. Took place in the Midwest region of the United States on Armistice Day. This "Panhandle hook" winter storm cut a 1,000 mi-wide path (1,600 km) through the middle of the country from Kansas to Michigan. The morning of the storm was unseasonably warm but by mid afternoon conditions quickly deteriorated into a raging blizzard that would last into the next day. A total of 145 deaths were blamed on the storm, almost a third of them duck hunters who had taken time off to take advantage of the ideal hunting conditions. Weather forecasters had not predicted the severity of the oncoming storm, and as a result the hunters were not dressed for cold weather. When the storm began many hunters took shelter on small islands in the Mississippi River, and the 50 mph (80 km/h) winds and 5-foot (1.5 m) waves overcame their encampments. Some became stranded on the islands and then froze to death in the single-digit temperatures that moved in over night. Others tried to make it to shore and drowned.
North American blizzard of 1947 December 25-26, 1947. Was a record-breaking snowfall that began on Christmas Day and brought the Northeast United States to a standstill. Central Park in New York City got 26" of snowfall in 24 hours with deeper snows in suburbs. It was not accompanied by high winds, but the snow fell steadily with drifts reaching 10 ft (3.0 m). Seventy-seven deaths were attributed to the blizzard.
The Blizzard of 1949 - The first blizzard started on Sunday, January 2, 1949; it lasted for three days. It was followed by two more months of blizzard after blizzard with high winds and bitter cold. Deep drifts isolated southeast Wyoming, northern Colorado, western South Dakota and western Nebraska, for weeks. Railroad tracks and roads were all drifted in with drifts of 20 feet and more. Hundreds of people that had been traveling on trains were stranded. Motorists that had set out on January 2 found their way to private farm homes in rural areas and hotels and other buildings in towns; some dwellings were so crowded that there wasn't enough room for all to sleep at once. It would be weeks before they were plowed out. The Federal government quickly responded with aid, airlifting food and hay for livestock. The total rescue effort involved numerous volunteers and local agencies plus at least ten major state and federal agencies from the U.S. Army to the National Park Service. Private businesses, including railroad and oil companies, also lent manpower and heavy equipment to the work of plowing out. The official death toll was 76 people and one million livestock.
The Mount Shasta California Snowstorm of 1959 - The storm dumped 189 inches of snow on Mount Shasta. The bulk of the snow fell on unpopulated mountainous areas, barely disrupting the residents of the Mount Shasta area. The amount of snow recorded is the largest snowfall from a single storm in North America.
March 1962 Nor'easter Great March Storm of 1962 - Ash Wednesday. North Carolina and Virginia blizzards. Struck during Spring high tide season and remained mostly stationary for almost 5 days causing significant damage along eastern coast, Assateague island was under water, and dumped 42" of snow in Virginia.
Buffalo Blizzard of 1977 January 28 - February 1, 1977. There were several feet of packed snow already on the ground, and the blizzard brought with it enough snow to reach Buffalo's record for the most snow in one season - 199.4 inches.
Great Blizzard of 1978 also called the "Cleveland Superbomb". January 25-27, 1978. Was one of the worst snowstorms the Midwest has ever seen. Wind gusts approached 100 mph (160 km/h), causing snowdrifts to reach heights of 25 ft (7.6 m) in some areas, making roadways impassable. Storm reached maximum intensity over southern Ontario Canada.
1993 Storm of the Century March 12-15, 1993. While the southern and eastern U.S. and Cuba received the brunt of this massive blizzard, the Storm of the Century impacted a wider area than any in recorded history.
Late December 2015 North American storm complex December 26-27, 2015 Was one of the most notorious blizzards in the state of New Mexico and West Texas ever reported. It had sustained winds of over 30 mph and continuous snow precipitation that lasted over 30 hours. Dozens of vehicles were stranded in small county roads in the areas of Hobbs, Roswell, and Carlsbad New Mexico. Strong sustained winds destroyed various mobile homes.