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Explaining Winter Weather Warnings

by BROOKE GOLD HASSON | Feb 21, 2014

Feb-21-300x200Snow has blanketed much of the South this winter, causing all sorts of rarely seen icons to pop up on our weather maps. Along with these little clouds and snowflakes, the National Weather Service is also broadcasting alerts that you may not understand since they happen so infrequently.

With frost, flurries and freezing rain in the news, understanding the difference can help you prepare if you need to head outside.  A great thing to remember when you’re listening to alerts is that a Warning is typically worse than a Watch. Think of it along the lines of: you warn someone when a danger is present but you tell someone to watch out for a danger when it’s just a possibility.

The National Weather Services provides a brief explanation of the warnings it uses, and we’ve collected it here to help you know when it’s time to go to work or time to stay indoors.

Winter Precipitation:

  • Winter Weather Advisory: This alert means winter conditions such as snow, sleet, ice or freezing rain are expected and will cause hazardous conditions on sidewalks and roads.
  • Wintry Mix: This is a mixture of snow, sleet and/or freezing rain.
  • Freezing Rain: These notices cover rain that falls as water droplets but will freeze and create ice on the ground after it falls.
  • Sleet: Sleet is rain that freezes before it falls. It’s essentially raining small drops of ice.
  • Snow Flurries: Flurries are a light snowfall that usually lasts for a short time. Flurries do not create accumulation on the ground and typically melts.
  • Active Snow/ Snow Showers: These are like rain showers, where snow falls heavily enough to accumulate on the ground. The term “showers” typically means the snow will be less than 4 inches and there’s not enough wind to cause visibility problems.

 Winter Storms:

  • Winter Storm Watch: This is announced when severe winter conditions of heavy snow or ice accumulation are possible within 24 to 48 hours.
  • Winter Storm Warning: A winter storm with heavy snow or ice is imminent. This warning will also be broadcast when the storm is ongoing.
  • Blizzard Warning: A blizzard warning occurs when the Weather Service predicts that a winter storm will cause conditions where you can’t see because of flying snow. Blizzards are typically declared when the storm is expected to last more than three hours.
  • Blowing/Driving Snow: This warning notes that snow which has already fallen is being pushed by strong winds and may make it hard to see.

Winter Winds:

  • Wind Chill: The Wind Chill is an estimate on what the weather feels like when it hits exposed skin. It’s based on both the air temperature and the wind speed.
  • Wind Chill Advisory: This is posted when it’s possible for the wind chill to reach potentially dangerous temperatures. Don’t stay outside in this, or worse, weather.
  • Wind Chill Watch: The Advisory is upgraded to a Watch when there is a potential for life-threatening wind chill readings. What’s considered life-threatening varies by your local forecast office, but typically starts at around 10 degrees below zero.
  • Wind Chill Warning: The Watch is further upgraded to a Warning when these life-threatening wind chill readings are expected. These temperatures are extremely dangerous and may kill you within minutes of being exposed to them.

Winter weather can be very dangerous when it catches you unprepared. Learning these winter terms and returning to our helpful guide can help you know exactly what you’re facing. If you do stay inside, People’s Trust asks you to practice safe fireplace and heating use. You never want to fall asleep in front of the space heater.


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