What Is Thundersnow?

Jessica Kourkounis, Getty Images
Jessica Kourkounis, Getty Images

The northeastern United States is dealing with its second major nor'easter in a week, with rain and heavy snow—and the associated power outages—cutting a path across the Mid-Atlantic and New England. But news of the adverse impacts of the snowstorm is being accompanied by an unusual buzzword: thundersnow. Thundersnow occurs during a thunderstorm that produces snow instead of rain. The mechanisms that produce rainy thunderstorms and snowy thunderstorms are largely the same, even if the air temperature is below freezing.

A band of snow can become strong enough to produce lightning through two processes known as convection and forcing. Convection occurs when an area of warm air quickly rises through cooler air above it. Convective snow is most common during lake effect snow events like those you’d find on Lake Ontario or Lake Erie, since the process requires extreme vertical temperature gradients that can result from bitterly cold air flowing over a warm body of water.

Forcing is slightly different. A strengthening low-pressure system involves fast, dynamic changes in the atmosphere, especially when one of these storm systems quickly gains strength. Such a fast-developing storm can cause large amounts of lift in the atmosphere, a process that forces air to swiftly rise like you’d see during convection. This creates intense bands of snow that can grow so strong that they produce thunder and lightning. This process is responsible for the thundersnow that occurs during blizzards and nor’easters, those powerful storms that regularly hit the eastern coast of the U.S. during the winter. Thundersnow can be pretty exciting—just ask The Weather Channel's Jim Cantore:

The name “thundersnow” can be a bit misleading. One of the most enjoyable things about a snowfall is how silent it is outside when there’s a thick blanket of snow on the ground. Snow absorbs sound waves so efficiently that you can usually only hear ambient noises immediately around where you’re standing. Snow muffles the sound of thunder for the same reason. Thunder that might be audible for many miles during a rainy thunderstorm might only be audible for a few thousand feet away from where the lightning struck. Unless the lightning strikes very close to where you are, you might only see a bright flash during thundersnow without ever hearing the thunder.

While thundersnow is a fascinating phenomenon to encounter, it does involve lightning, after all, and it’s just as dangerous as any other lightning bolt you’d see in a rainy thunderstorm. If you’re ever lucky enough to experience thundersnow, the event is best enjoyed indoors and out of harm’s way.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

Britain Is in the Midst of a Rare ‘Wind Drought’

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iStock

Generating renewable energy in Britain is a little less than a breeze these days: A “wind drought” is halting the country’s wind turbines.

This month’s wind energy output is down 40 percent from the same time last year, New Scientist reports. On average, about 15 percent of Britain’s electricity comes from wind power. Data starting from July 1 of this year put the monthly average closer to 6.9 percent. Last month, turbines were producing less than 2 percent of Britain’s electricity—the lowest output in two years.

That’s with even more wind turbines being installed over the course of the past year, New Scientist says. The data aren’t entirely surprising, though. The jet stream tends to make the UK’s weather drier and calmer during the summer and wetter and stormier during the winter. But the high pressure the jet stream has brought with it this year has been unusually prolonged, scientists say.

“It’s like a lid, it keeps everything still,” UK Met Office spokesperson Grahame Madge told New Scientist. “From the forecast looking out over the next couple of weeks, there doesn’t seem to be any significant change on the way.”

The wind drought shouldn’t cause too many problems in the short term. Electricity demand is low during the summer (very few British homes have air conditioning), and the country’s been able to compensate for the lack of wind by burning more natural gas. If the wind drought continues to persist, though, UK residents may begin to see an increase in utility fees. Natural gas prices have already risen with the increased demand.

“As we continue to transition to a low-carbon energy system, managing the intermittency of renewable power an important role in balancing supply and demand,” a National Grid spokesperson told New Scientist. “However, we have planned for these changes and [are] ready to play our part.”

The wind drought comes about eight years after British politicians vowed to reduce the UK's dependence on fossil fuels. Last year was the first year that electricity generated from low-carbon energy sources like solar power, wind power, and nuclear power outpaced high-carbon energy sources like coal and natural gas. This summer’s wind drought may make it difficult to improve on last year’s numbers.

[h/t New Scientist]

Why Does the Sky Look Green Before a Tornado?

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iStock

A common bit of folklore from tornado-prone parts of the U.S. says that when the skies start taking on an emerald hue, it's time to run inside. But why do tornadoes tend to spawn green skies in the first place? As SciShow's Michael Aranda explains, the answer has to do with the way water droplets reflect the colors of the light spectrum.

During the day, the sky is usually blue because the shorter, bluer end of the light spectrum bounces off air molecules better than than redder, longer-wavelength light. Conditions change during the sunset (and sunrise), when sunlight has to travel through more air, and when storms are forming, which means there are more water droplets around.

Tornadoes forming later in the day, around sunset, do a great job of reflecting the green part of the light spectrum that's usually hidden in a sunset because of the water droplets in the clouds, which bounce green light into our eyes. But that doesn't necessarily mean a twister is coming—it could just mean a lot of rain is in the forecast. Either way, heading inside is probably a good idea.

For the full details on how water and light conspire to turn the sky green before a storm, check out the SciShow video below.

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