Area of occurrenceTemperate and polar regions, high mountains.
SeasonUsually winter.
EffectPower outages, dangerous travel conditions.

A blizzard is a severe snowstorm characterized by strong sustained winds and low visibility, lasting for a prolonged period of time—typically at least three or four hours. 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.

Blizzard at the Tochal Skiing resort, Tehran and affected skiers.
A late night heavy blizzard in Ontario, Canada.

Definition and etymology

In the United States, the National Weather Service defines a blizzard as a severe snow storm 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.[1][2]

Environment Canada defines a blizzard as a storm with wind speeds exceeding 40 km/h (25 mph) accompanied by visibility of 400 metres (0.25 mi) or less, resulting from snowfall, blowing snow, or a combination of the two. These conditions must persist for a period of at least four hours for the storm to be classified as a blizzard, except north of the arctic tree line, where that threshold is raised to six hours.[3]

Drifted snow near Burrow-with-Burrow, Lancashire, England, January 1963

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." [4]

A view of Jätkäsaari, Helsinki, Finland, during a brief but intense blizzard on a March evening.

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.[5] 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).[5]

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 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.[6]

United States storm systems

Near-whiteout conditions dim the far end of Times Square in New York City, 2015.
March blizzard in North Dakota, 1966.
The Brooklyn Bridge during the Great Blizzard of 1888.

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.[2][7]

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.

Nor'easter blizzards

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.

Historic events

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.[8][9]

2008 Afghanistan blizzard

The 2008 Afghanistan blizzard, was a fierce blizzard that struck Afghanistan on 10 January 2008. Temperatures fell to a low of −30 °C (−22 °F), with up to 180 centimetres (71 in) of snow in the more mountainous regions, killing at least 926 people. It was the third deadliest blizzard in history.[citation needed] The weather also claimed more than 100,000 sheep and goats, and nearly 315,000 cattle died.[10]

The Snow Winter of 1880–1881

Main article: Hard Winter of 1880-81

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 many parts of the United States.

The initial blizzard in October 1880 brought snowfalls so deep that two-story homes experienced accumulations, as opposed to drifts, up to their second-floor windows. No one was prepared for deep snow so early in the winter. Farmers from North Dakota to Virginia were caught flat with fields unharvested, what grain that had been harvested unmilled, and their suddenly all-important winter stocks of wood fuel only partially collected. By January train service was almost entirely suspended from the region. Railroads hired scores of men to dig out the tracks but as soon as they had finished shoveling a stretch of line a new storm arrived, burying it again.

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 towns the streets were filled with solid drifts to the tops of the buildings and tunneling was necessary to move about. Homes and barns were completely covered, compelling farmers to construct fragile tunnels in order to feed their stock.

When the snow finally melted in late spring of 1881, huge sections of the plains experienced flooding. Massive ice jams clogged the Missouri River, and when they broke the downstream areas were inundated. Most of the town of Yankton, in what is now South Dakota, was washed away when the river overflowed its banks after the thaw.[11][12]


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, Cap Garland, who ventured out on the open prairie in search of a cache of wheat that no one was even sure existed.

The Storm of the Century

Under the weight of snow, a tree falls next to a car in Asheville, North Carolina

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) [13] 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

Main article: List of blizzards

North America

See also: List of NESIS storms, List of Regional Snowfall Index Category 5 winter storms, and List of Regional Snowfall Index Category 4 winter storms

1700 to 1799

1800 to 1850

1851 to 1900

1901 to 1939

1940 to 1949

1950 to 1959

1960 to 1969

1970 to 1979

1980 to 1989

1990 to 1999

2000 to 2009

2010 to 2019

2020 to present


United Kingdom

Other locations

See also


  1. ^ "Blizzard at the US National Weather Service glossary". 2009-06-25. Retrieved 2012-08-18.
  2. ^ a b "Blizzards". Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  3. ^ Canada, Environment and Climate Change (2010-07-26). "Criteria for public weather alerts". Retrieved 2022-03-23.
  4. ^ "Blizzard definition, Weather Words, Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology". Retrieved 2012-08-18.
  5. ^ a b "Blizzard" Encyclopædia Britannica Online retrieved 17 March 2012
  6. ^ Entry for Blizzard. Oxford English Dictionary.
  7. ^ – Storm Encyclopedia Archived February 11, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ "40 Years Ago, Iran Was Hit by the Deadliest Blizzard in History". 7 February 2012. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  9. ^ "بوران ۱۳۵۰: شدیدترین بوران تاریخ معاصر ایران و جهان". Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  10. ^ "Bitter winter a killer in Afghanistan". CBC News. 2008-02-10. Archived from the original on 2008-06-12. Retrieved 2009-03-14.
  11. ^ "Prologue". 8 March 2012.
  12. ^ Doane Robinson (1904), "Chapter LIII: Dakota Territory History – 1880–1881", History of South Dakota, vol. 1, pp. 306–309
  13. ^ National Climatic Data Center (1993). "Event Details". National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Archived from the original on April 16, 2009. Retrieved December 22, 2010.
  14. ^ a b "15 of the Worst Snowstorms in History". 9 February 2015. Archived from the original on 18 October 2016. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  15. ^ a b Northeast Snowstorms, Vol II. Kocin/Uccellini pg 299
  16. ^ "Weather Events: The Washington and Jefferson Snowstorm of 1772". Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  17. ^ a b Northeast Snowstorms, Vol II. Kocin/Uccellini pg 301
  18. ^ a b c d e Northeast Snowstorms, Vol II. Kocin/Uccellini pg 303
  19. ^ Extreme Weather record book, 2007 edition, pg 91, Christopher Burt
  20. ^ a b The American Weather Book. David Ludlum pg 265
  21. ^ The American Weather Book. David Ludlum pg 263
  22. ^ Northeast Snowstorms, Vol II. Kocin/Uccellini pg 304
  23. ^ The American Weather Book. David Ludlum pg 6
  24. ^ a b c d The American Weather Book. David Ludlum pg 7
  25. ^ a b "Blizzard of 1886 - Kansapedia - Kansas Historical Society". Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  26. ^ "Blizzard Years". Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  27. ^ Clark, Laura (January 9, 2015). "The 1887 Blizzard That Changed the American Frontier Forever". Smithsonian.
  28. ^ "Blizzard of '49 - Wyoming History". PBS. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  29. ^ Hein, Rebecca. "The Notorious Blizzard of 1949". The Wyoming State Historical Society. Retrieved December 20, 2017.
  30. ^ The American Weather Book. David Ludlum pg 264
  31. ^ Extreme Weather record book, 2007 edition, pg 241, Christopher Burt
  32. ^ "10 Biggest Snowstorms of All Time". 12 November 2009. Retrieved 11 May 2018.