What is a Snow Squall?

People caught on the streets dashed for cover as the snow squall hit New York City on Wednesday.
People caught on the streets dashed for cover as the snow squall hit New York City on Wednesday. (Getty)

Many in the northeast wondered what the alert on their phone meant as a winter storm headed their way.

As a sudden winter storm left three people dead and dozens injured as it swept through the northeast, many are asking – what exactly is a snow squall?

What is a snow squall?

“A snow squall is an intense short-lived burst of heavy snowfall that leads to a quick reduction in visibilities and is often accompanied by gusty winds," according to the National Weather Service.

The winter event is characterized by its suddenness, and is similar to a blizzard. They often come with little warning and can cause low visibility conditions. While people in the affected area Wednesday were delivered a warning to their smartphones 30 minutes in advance, it is not uncommon for snow squalls to appear within minutes or seconds and without warning.

But snow squalls are generally localized and short-lived, usually lasting less than an hour. Wednesday’s snow squall was expected to be confined to New York City and its surrounding areas, but caused problems as far as central Pennsylvania.

Who was hurt?

Edward Posavec, 53, of Hatfield, Pennsylvania and Marek Szcezpanczyk, 58, of Sterling Heights, Michigan died in a 20-car pileup in central Pennsylvania during the storm that also injured nearly 40 people, according to reports.

Why are they so dangerous?

Because of how fast-moving snow squalls tend to be, people caught outside during the event can expect whiteout conditions within seconds.

How common are they?

The term “snow squall” is relatively new, with the National Weather Service only beginning to use the name in November 2018. However, NBC News meteorologist Kathryn Prociv said they are “the winter equivalent of severe thunderstorms and are pretty common this time of year.”

This is the second time a snow squall warning was ever issued in the New York area, according to the Washington Post.

How can we stay safe?

Delay travel and stay off the roads if possible. For people already driving during the storm, proceed slowly, turn on headlights and do not slam your brakes, as icy conditions can cause a car to skid.