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Thunder, Lightning… and SNOW?

Thunder, Lightning… and SNOW?

Spring and summer thundershowers are common in most parts of North America. But what about thunderstorms in the winter time? Winter thunderstorms, also known as “thundersnow,” are a somewhat rare type of thunderstorm during which snow, rather than rain, falls as the primary form of precipitation.

What Is Thundersnow?

Thunderstorms occur when an air mass becomes so unstable that it overturns violently. This usually happens when drastically different temperatures meet, such as when the air closer to the ground is unusually warm and humid and the air above it is unusually cool. Because the lower layers of air are colder — and have a lower dew point — in the wintertime, these kinds of atmospheric clashes are very unusual during colder months. Still, thundersnow does happen.

Thundersnows are most common in the Great Lakes region, when cold air blows across the relatively mild water of the Great Lakes, forcing the air upwards rapidly enough that the instability causes lightning and thunder in conjunction with heavy snow. This same effect can happen along the East Coast, when an icy cold Nor’easter moves in to a region on the heels of a warmer front.

Thunder snow even has its own weather lore!

Thundersnow has accompanied some of the most memorable snowstorms of the last several years. A Christmas Eve snowstorm that hit parts of the Middle Atlantic and New England in 1966 was accompanied by so much lightning and thunder that weather historian David Ludlum referred to it as the “Donner and Blitzen Snowstorm.”

Thundersnows were also observed during the Blizzard of February 1978 (over New England) and the Blizzard of 1996 (over the Northeast US).

And of course, who can forget the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore and his enthusiastic encounter with 5 thunderstsnows in a row?

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  • Donna Hardin says:

    Susan you are so right,March 13,1993,thunder woke me up and I knew it was suppose to snow so I got up and looked out the window and we had 8 plus in. in Douglasville GA

  • Jimmy Kantori says:

    It is a rare event indeed, but sometimes it does thunder during snow storms, hence the term Thunder Snow. However, in the U.S. there has never been a case of lightening during a snow storm. You can factcheck by going to weatherpedia and overgroundweather.com.

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Hi Jimmy, sorry but lightning and thunder go hand in hand, snow or no snow. From this nor’easter alone on 3/7, there were 2,000 lightning strikes. Even directly from Weather.com, “Thundersnow is a snowstorm event in which thunder and lightning occur. “

  • Betty says:

    we went through that last night

  • Cindy says:

    We had thundersnow here in Nashville with last week’s storm. I was watching it snow in our back yard when a huge lightning “ball” struck a few yards away, with simultaneous thunder right overhead. Needless to say, I headed inside! It thundered all afternoon intermittently…

  • diana says:

    12:39 am on February 16, 2015 loud clap of thunder and snowing like crazy ! Already at least an inch of snow on the ground in N.E. Oklahoma.

  • Michael Gagne says:

    Ii heard if it thunders in December …today…that it will snow in 14 days. Any truth to that?

  • mildred says:

    It also happens in other places. In 1969-70 I went to bed in Enid, Oklahoma to thunder and lightening and woke up to knee deep snow!

  • Lynn says:

    We had Thundersnow here in NC on my 40th birthday, almost 2 years ago! It was the BEST gift ever!! Only down side is we had to drive home about 30 miles and it was literally like a blizzard and very hard to see the highway at times but it was still AMAZING!! Hope to see it again soon!

  • ethel says:

    The first time I ever saw this was in my late 40s. in Pocatello id. It really was amazing

  • Shawn says:

    I love thundersnow! I hope it happens this winter.

  • Wanda in Maine says:

    I am remembering maybe only once a few years ago….and it seemed so strange at the time! Surreal……

  • Cara says:

    We had thunder and lightening yesterday outside of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania

  • Susan says:

    Interesting article although I wonder with all the weather phenom we’ve had since 2009, how it would read today. We had thundersnow yesterday (1/17/13) in Birmingham Alabama. We also had it – including lightning – March 13, 1993. Both really something!

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