Winter storms: The ‘hidden’ hazards

10 years ago

I have noticed, in my years as a meteorologist, that when a winter storm is in the forecast, folks tend to over-focus on how much is expected, while not fully considering the storm’s other hazards, which include possible white-outs, dangerous cold, and getting stuck without a winter survival kit!

Then, when the storm is over, people tend to really let their guard down. Yet we still can, and sadly do, have deadly accidents after a snowstorm.
So, how to prevent these tragedies? Well, my goal is always to get people used to observing conditions, so that they can predict what they might encounter in their travels. And you might be surprised that it is surprisingly easy to do!
Here is a great example: You awaken to find that M. Nature has dumped a foot of feather-light powder. You think, “this is great, it’s going to be a piece of cake to clear my property, because it is not the heavy, wet, gloppy stuff.” Now while you are engaged in your cleanup, you happen to notice the wind starting to pick up. But you go right back to work because you have travel plans that afternoon and you want to finish up as quickly as possible.
Well, in the situation just described, here is what I am thinking about: Light, powdery snow plus wind means blowing snow and possible white-outs, especially across open terrain. And it amazes me that people don’t make better use of these kinds of easy-to-notice observations You can factor them right into your travel plans, thereby making the safest possible decision for you and your family, before even starting out!
Ask yourself, how many times have you hit the road after a storm and been surprised by the extent of the blowing snow? I’ll bet it’s more than once!
And there is nothing in winter’s deck of cards more frightening than to be in a moving vehicle when you cannot see beyond the hood of your car.
There is one other post-storm hazard I’d like to mention. Let’s say that there is only minor blowing snow the day after a storm, no white-outs, or anything like that, and let’s further say that temps make it to the upper 30s, so that any snow that does blow onto the road is just melting. Then, early that evening you remember you need something at the store, and when you go back out, you notice the sky is ablaze with stars, and winds have become dead calm. Those are ideal conditions for rapid evening cooling and guess what those wet areas on the roads are now doing? Freezing up!
So, again, by taking just a bit of time to observe, you can help keep your family safe this winter!
Ted Shapiro holds the Broadcast Seal of Approval from both the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association. An Alexandria, Va. native, he has been Chief Meteorologist at WAGM-TV since 2006. Email him at