By most definitions, few people — even our northern neighbors — would argue that the mid-Atlantic storm of Jan. 22-24, 2016 (also known as Snowzilla) was not a blizzard. It was a blockbuster, and set many new records from Virginia to New York for most snowfall in a single storm.
In the past, a blizzard was defined by the U.S. Weather Bureau (which eventually became the National Weather Service) in very specific terms. It was “a severe snowstorm characterized by strong sustained winds of at least 35 mph and lasting for a prolonged period of time—typically three hours or more. It was usually accompanied by very low temperatures, say, below 20 degrees, and near-zero visibility.
The origin of the term “blizzard” in American media is thought to stem from its use in 1870 as a reference by Estherville, Iowa’s Northern Vindicator to the great snowstorm of March of that year.
But further research reveals many other possibilities, such as: (1) the Blizzard family of Buckinghamshire, England who emigrated to the northern U.S. and allowed their name to be used as a synonym for severe snowstorms; or (2) the English word “blizzer,” a knock-down fight; or (3) the French word “blizz,” a severe rainstorm; or (3) a cannon shot; or (3) a body-piercing archery shot; and many others.
Today, the term “blizzard,” as used by the National Weather Service (NWS), omits a few of the technical requirements contained in earlier definitions. In fact, the meaning of the word blizzard seems to be an evolving definition.
Currently, the term as used by the NWS means “a storm which contains large amounts of snow OR blowing snow, with winds in excess of 35 mph and visibilities of less than 1/4 mile for an extended period of time (at least 3 hours).”
The word “or” here is particularly meaningful. For instance, look at the following forecast issued by the Canadian weather service for Resolute, located in the high arctic.
Blizzard warning in effect
|Today||Mainly cloudy. Blizzard developing early this afternoon. Wind northeast 20 km/h gusting to 40 increasing to 60 gusting to 80 early this afternoon. High minus 20[C]. Wind chill minus 39[C].|
|Tonight||Blizzard ending early this evening then mainly cloudy. 60 percent chance of flurries overnight. Blowing snow with visibilities at times less than 2kilometres. Wind northeast 60 km/h gusting to 80 diminishing to 40 gusting to 60 early this evening. Low minus 22[C]. Wind chill minus 37[C].|
Note that there’s no mention of snowfall amounts, which Environment Canada usually includes, in the above forecast. That’s because the expected blizzard is essentially a high wind warning resulting in a ground blizzard due to blowing snow. It wasn’t going to actually be falling from the sky.
It’s doubtful whether today, at least on the East Coast of the United States, such a forecast would ever be issued. People would be too confused.
But as I’ve stated before, when it snows in our area more than, say, eight inches (with or without wind), only meteorologists will argue whether or not a blizzard has occurred. To the rest of us, who must walk in it, work in it, and especially drive in it, it is a blizzard! And by the way, no blizzards in sight.