As I sit writing this post today, it is currently 52 degrees with bright, sunny skies at the Albany International Airport. Temperatures in central New York and Pennsylvania are in the low 60s, and the frigid arctic air that was making national headlines just a few days ago seem like a distant memory (at least until one remembers that it is early February and winter is far from over in the Northeast!). While the coldest of the cold air impacted the Midwest and northern Plains, those of us here in the northeast U.S. got a quick blast of the frigid air between January 30 and February 1.
On January 30, forecast high temperatures across parts of Minnesota and Iowa were below zero degrees Fahrenheit, leading to dangerous and life-threatening wind chill temperatures. As the cold air moved eastward into the Northeast that day, intense snow squalls developed during the afternoon.
The National Weather Service defines a snow squall as ‘an intense short-lived burst of heavy snowfall that leads to a quick reduction in visibilities and is often accompanied by gusty winds’. As a result, whiteout conditions and slick roadways can occur very quickly. The National Weather Service now issues Snow Squall Warnings, which are intended to alert the public of rapidly deteriorating weather conditions.
Snow squalls were expected to impact upstate New York and western New England just in time for the evening rush hour.
The radar animation below shows several bands of snow evolving during the course of the afternoon. Initially, there is an intense lake-effect snow band on the eastern end of Lake Erie which was responsible for bringing blizzard conditions to parts of the Buffalo area, as well as a very narrow but intense line of snow showers in central Pennsylvania. By about 1:00 PM (approximately 8 seconds into the loop), one can see the intense, north-south oriented line of snow showers across central New York and Pennsylvania which is moving east with time, as well as another line of intense precipitation on the eastern edge of Lake Ontario. While these narrow bands of snow showers may not look as intense as, say, a line of thunderstorms would, the impacts of snow squalls can be just as dangerous.
What did conditions look like during the snow squalls? Below is an image from a webcam located at the NYS Mesonet site in Duanesburg, New York (west of Albany).
And here is a very similar looking image showing whiteout conditions at the NYS Mesonet site in Sprakers, New York (approximately 50 miles west-northwest of Albany):
This video montage nicely depicts the rapidly changing weather conditions across New York State:
While the total snowfall across upstate New York due to the snow squall was under 0.5 inches in most locales, the Albany International Airport recorded a wind gust of 54 miles per hour. As such, blowing snow and near zero visibility occurred in the squall. Although there were no major traffic incidents in upstate New York, unfortunately the squalls were responsible for a crash on a Pennsylvania highway (west of Reading, PA) which involved 27 cars and caused numerous injuries. Temperatures rapidly dropped behind the squall and the gusty winds ushered in much colder air. At the Albany Airport and around the Northeast, the temperatures plummeted into the single digits during the evening of January 30. Gusty winds combined with these very cold temperatures created dangerous wind chill conditions on both Thursday and Friday (January 31 and February 1).
Would you know what to do if you were caught on the road in a snow squall like the ones that moved across the Northeast on January 30? There are several steps one should take to be prepared:
1. Stay alert to rapidly changing weather conditions. Pay attention to National Weather Service watches, which will alert you to the possibility of severe weather, and warnings, which will alert you when severe weather is imminent. You can receive these statements via a weather radio, various social media outlets, or online. We disseminate NWS warnings on our Facebook page as well.
2. If you must travel and snow squalls are in the forecast, be sure to leave extra travel time and make sure your car is packed with snow shovels and brushes and an emergency supply kit.
3. If you find yourself caught in a squall with snow, winds, and a sudden reduction of visibility, reduce your speed and turn on your headlights. Do NOT slam on your breaks as slick roadways could cause a loss of control of your vehicle.