Blizzards are Becoming More Common in the U.S., Study Says

Jon Erdman
Published: March 16, 2017


The number of blizzards in the U.S. have increased by almost a factor of four since the mid-20th century, a recent study has found.

From 1959 through 2014, 713 blizzards in the Lower 48 states were documented by the study published in the January 2017 issue of the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climate.

Using a linear regression model, the study found the number of blizzards each season in the U.S. rose from about 6 at the beginning of the study to 21 to 22 by the 2013-2014 season.

Annual blizzard frequency for the 1959/60 through 2013/14 seasons subdivided in three-month intervals.

"A strong positive trend in annual blizzard frequency exists, particularly in the past two decades," said Dr. Jill Coleman, associate professor at Ball State University, the study's lead author.

"Ultimately the increased blizzard activity trend has a large component related to data quality issues early in the record, but the entire trend cannot be fully explained by these issues alone."

Building on previous 2002 study by co-author Dr. Robert Schwartz from the University of Akron, the study examined NOAA's official Storm Data database from fall 1959 through spring 2014 for reports of blizzard conditions.

These include winds over 35 mph, coupled with falling or blowing snow reducing visibility to less than one-quarter mile for at least three hours.

Over the 55-year period, the average number of blizzards in the Lower 48 states was 13, but varied from a low of 1 in 1980-1981 to 32 in 2007-2008.

Investigating whether this increased blizzard trend can be linked to long-term trends in dominant weather patterns will be the subject of future research.

Blizzard Alleys

The study also found distinct blizzard alleys.

Annual blizzard probability by county as a percentage of years from 1959-2014 with a blizzard occurrence.

"Although the Northeast receives much media attention regarding blizzard activity, the largest and most consistent area of higher annual blizzard activity occurs in the northern Great Plains," said Coleman.

North Dakota, parts of northern South Dakota and northwest Minnesota have at least a 61 percent chance of at least one blizzard in a given year. The study found four North Dakota counties – Barnes, Benson, Cass and Traill – have the highest probability, just over 76 percent. A total of 111 blizzards were documented in Traill and Cass Counties.

The rest of Minnesota, much of Iowa, Nebraska, northwest Kansas, eastern Colorado, far eastern Wyoming and parts of eastern Montana have at least a one in three chance of a blizzard each year, carving out the rest of the Plains blizzard alley.

In the East, the highest blizzard probabilities are found in eastern New England. Four counties in northern Maine were found to have probabilities of about 40 percent in any year, while the rest of Maine, southern New Hampshire, eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island had roughly 20 percent chance of at least one blizzard a year.

Other Blizzard Facts

The Coleman and Schwartz study also had a number of other interesting facts about blizzards.

  • The average areal cover of each blizzard was 83,474 square kilometers, or roughly the size of South Carolina.
     
  • The single largest blizzard in their study was the Jan. 24-27, 1978, Cleveland Superbomb, which produced blizzard conditions over an area almost the size of Texas and Montana put together (1,054,799 square kilometers).
     
  • Blizzards were most commonly documented in December and January.
     
  • Every month except July, August and September featured at least 1 blizzard from 1959-2014, including a June 8-9, 2002, blizzard in northern Montana's Rocky Mountain Front.
     
  • Spring (March through May) blizzards happened about twice as often as in the fall (September through November).
     
  • One fatality and three injuries were directly attributed to each blizzard, on average.

Jonathan Erdman is a senior meteorologist at weather.com and has been an incurable weather geek since a tornado narrowly missed his childhood home in Wisconsin at age 7. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

MORE: New York City's Blizzard of 1888 (PHOTOS)


The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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