Thundersnow, folks. It’s happening.
As Wednesday’s nor’easter cranked up and pushed into the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, rumbles of thunder rang out as flakes flew. It’s one of the most wonderful meteorological phenomena out there, and you should count yourself lucky if you got to experience it Wednesday afternoon (I know I did).
Meteorologists have a soft spot for thundersnow. Jim Cantore’s freak out about it is the stuff of legend, and with good reason. It takes very special conditions for thundersnow to happen.
Snowstorms require cold air for it snow (duh). They also tend to be relatively stable at various layers of the atmosphere. In contrast, thunderstorms are driven by instability with a cold upper atmosphere and warmer conditions close to the ground that causes air to rapidly rise.
That rarely occurs in snowstorms because of the aforementioned cold needed for snow to fall, and comparative stability. Capital Weather Gang explained that you can get instability to produce thundersnow on rare occasions, and what makes this event even more special:
“Ordinary thunderstorms develop vertically as less dense air near the surface rises. That scenario is tough to get in the wintertime; instead thundersnow typically develops in quickly spinning nor’easters when pockets of air are forced diagonally upward into the atmosphere
Wednesday’s scenario is unique because the air at the mid-levels is so incredibly cold. That will enable the generation of ‘traditional’ vertical instability, just like in the summertime.”
The National Weather Service also tweeted a helpful, whimsical graphic to explain the process:
So, basically we’re getting summer conditions with winter chill. There are also some signs that New York’s skyscrapers could be attracting lightning strikes, which just adds another crazy layer to this batch of thundersnow.
For the average person, the novelty of hearing thunder as snow falls at a rate of 1-2 inches per hour is pretty cool, and maybe also woe-inducing if you have to walk outside in it (though we can all agree this is better than nor’easter-induced plane vomit). Or if you’re Emily, Earther’s intrepid social media editor who went to get a burrito bowl for lunch just now and witnessed thundersnow in the wild, “someone screamed, and then the thunder crashed. It was fine.”
I put out a call to meteorologists on Twitter about why exactly they get so hyped. Here are a few of the reasons they told me they were jumping for joy on the East Coast, or living in envy elsewhere in the U.S.
“Even though I understand how it occurs meteorologically, it’s hard for my brain to get past the thought process of ‘thunder belongs in severe/warm time storms,’” Becky DePodwin, a meteorologist and product manager at Accuweather, told Earther. “Heavy snowfall rates are awesome to begin with, and then you throw in something that excites a meteorologist or weather nerd at the very core of who they are—thunder and lightning—and it’s just a magical combination.”
“Thundersnow is amazing because of how delicate and rare a phenomenon it is,” Jack Sillin, a weather forecaster with weather.us, wrote. “You need both enough instability/dynamic energy for thunder, and enough cold air for snow. While getting 1/2 ingredients is fairly common, having both at the same time and place is extremely impressive!”
A number of other meteorologists responded by expanding on the science behind thundersnow.
Basically, this is like having your favorite teams play in the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, NBA Finals, and World Series all at once. And that’s why meteorologists are living the dream right now, except for Eric Holthaus who is a killjoy with no chill.
Eric, if you are reading this, I’m officially confiscating your title of “America’s weather-predicting boyfriend.”
And with that, I will leave you with some sad tweets from meteorologists stuck knocking on the gates of thundersnow heaven.