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Who gets the most blizzards – and what, exactly, is a blizzard?

Quick answer: Not Western New York.

Quick disclaimer: There is no blizzard in sight, so relax.

A Weather Channel link that took me to a study published in an American Meteorological Society journal back in 2002 was the primary source for this article. That paper is as relevant today as it was then, so its information is still very useful.

First: What is a blizzard? It’s not just any heavy snowfall. In fact, there is no accumulation criteria in the scientific definition. A blizzard exists when there are sustained winds or frequent gusts of 35 mph or greater with visibility less than ¼ mile due to falling OR blowing snow for a period of at least 3 consecutive hours.

The October 2006 storm, as destructive as it was, does not qualify. The winds were not strong enough.

Why nitpick? Because “blizzard” is a severe weather term and infers travel conditions for driver and pedestrians are potentially life-threatening. If we use the term too loosely, it loses its public impact in communicating the hazards of a particularly dangerous winter storm.

Prior to the 1990s, part of the definition included a requirement of a temperature of 20 degrees Fahrenheit or less, but that has since been dropped. And, if memory serves me, when I worked in Wichita in the mid-'70s, the National Weather Service also had a Severe Blizzard Warning criteria when sustained winds or frequent gusts reached 50 mph. The Cheyenne National Weather Service forecast office had formatted in their text for such a warning back then — I kid you not — “to become lost in a storm of this magnitude is to invite certain or likely death.”

Hype? Nope. Just picture being lost in a blinding blizzard on the sparsely populated high plains. No landmarks. Almost no people. If you leave your car, you’ll almost certainly succumb to hypothermia. If you stay in it until you’re out of fuel, you’re a goner as well.

A Weather Channel graphic, shared at right below by Tom Niziol, shows where you're most likely to find blizzards in the U.S.:

This maximum distribution is approximately the same now, except the number of verified blizzards has increased in the United States. Some of that may be due to climate factors or improved reporting or, in my opinion, the removal of the temperature requirement; we just don’t know.

Western New York isn’t even close to being a higher-frequency location for verified blizzards, despite the undeniable reality of our being a very snowy part of the country. (Buffalo’s average snowfall of 94.7 inches makes us the snowiest city with a population of greater than 250,000.)

In the study’s 1959-2000 time frame, note the shading of our region:

(Graphic from "Climatology of Blizzards in the Conterminous United States, 1959–2000")

("Climatology of Blizzards in the Conterminous United States, 1959–2000")

Across the majority of Western New York, we were in the range of four to 10 blizzards over 40 years.

The high frequency over the northern and high plains is more closely tied to the average path taken by deep winter cyclones/low-pressure systems, placing that swath of the country most often in the colder quadrant of those storms, with howling winds and heaviest snow.

What about the probability of a blizzard during an average winter? One source puts it at 13 to 24 percent. That is not at all insignificant, but it’s a long way from the probabilities found over the northern plains.

Bonafide blizzards are dangerous, to be sure. The January 1996 blizzard in the Northeast killed 154 people in 17 states. The northern Great Plains blizzard in 1975 killed 80 people, even though most of its passage was over thinly populated territory. The 1978 Midwest blizzard killed 73.

And our Blizzard of 1977 killed 29. Much of that disastrous storm was a “ground blizzard” caused by the many hours of high winds picking up the huge accumulations of low-density snow that had already fallen in December and January over just about all of Western New York and on the frozen eastern portion of Lake Erie. Those ferocious winds blew it all across the entire region, accompanied by bitter cold and dangerous wind-chill values. It’s estimated that only around 12 inches of new snow fell during that blizzard.

Ground blizzards are more common in the open Great Plains.

None of this is to say other huge storms weren’t paralyzing and dangerous, such as the November 2000 storm or the October 2006 storm. But actual blizzard-criteria storms are much more a rare event in Western New York than most would think. For example, the National Weather Service didn’t issue a blizzard warning after 1977 until the Blizzard of 1985 (the Six-Pack Storm!) and then again until March of 1993. And after that, no blizzards until 2014.

Feel better, winter haters? Hmmm. I didn’t think so.

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