Winter Season Misunderstandings

Here is a list of topics that never fail to amaze me as to why many people continue to misunderstand them.

1. Influenza vs. “Stomach Flu”

2. Sleet vs. Hail

3. Lake-Effect Snow vs. Non-Lake Effect Snow

4. Weather vs. Climate

5. “Well, I Heard That We Are Getting (fill in the blank) Weather…”

6. Blizzard vs. Snow Storm

Every winter, it is the same common misunderstandings that arise that you’d think by now, with the annual and numerous educational news stories, people would no longer have.  But no.  Then again after 30 years of the Weather Channel and it seems people still don’t understand weather any better than the days when the weather forecaster cracked bad jokes, or women dressed up like models and drew on a map with a black marker (late 1970s).

I get irritated every year with these topics.  Now with social media, we get to see our associates making daily statements illuminating their ignorance.  And I use the term “ignorance” with a benefit of the doubt because how on earth can these same misunderstandings persist year after year after year with the deluge of accurate information coming from multiple sources?!?  So here is my list of winter misunderstandings that irritate me:

1.  Influenza vs. “Stomach Flu”

Influenza is commonly called “the flu.”  Ok first of all, I dislike this expression, “the flu.”  Read it like a stereotypical redneck like the kind comedian Jeff Foxworthy would describe.  It sounds really backwards to me.  The flu.  It is the only disease we use the word “the” in front of anymore.  How many of you seriously say “so and so has the cancer”?  Or “so and so has the sugar (diabetes)”?

Second of all, and here is the important part, influenza is a respiratory disease.  That’s it.  I’m not even going to open the can of worms between the common cold and influenza.  Secondary infections or a norovirus running around at the time that may give you the runs also might be infecting you but these diseases are not the same.  Of course there are those that use the term “stomach flu” knowing perfectly well they are not speaking of influenza.  That is fine.  But I am dumbfounded each year by those that honestly don’t understand the difference.  This is an elementary, or at most, middle-school level distinctions, gang.

2.  Sleet vs. Hail

Ok, this one is more of a personal peeve that isn’t too big of deal.  But here we go anyway:  Sleet and hail are both ice particles that fall from the clouds but hail can only come from a thunderstorm.  If there is no thunderstorm, there can be no hail.  Any icy pellets falling without a thunderstorm is something we call sleet (in the United States.  Other English-speaking countries may refer to sleet as a mixed rain and snow precipitation).  Hail can get so big as to cause impact damage.  Sleet cannot. Quick quiz:  Circle the correct answer:  If you don’t hear thunder or see lightning and icy particles are falling, it is (hail or sleet).

 3.  Lake-Effect Snow vs. Non-Lake Effect Snow

Outside of the Great Lakes Basin, I can accept this misunderstanding with grace.  After all, few places on the planet have what is commonly called lake-effect precipitation.  But what stunned me is that many people in the Great Lakes Basin seem to imply that without the Great Lakes, they would have no snow.  Pretty damn stupid thought if you think about it for a millisecond.

So called “lake-effect snow” or more properly “lake-enhanced snow,” comes about because large unfrozen bodies of water, as either freshwater or salt water seas, add heat and some moisture to air masses passing over them.  The heat causes the air to rise and condense and form snow.  Usually it occurs in conjunction with larger-scale weather events that would produce some snow anyway.  There are a number of things that need to come together for lake-effect snow to occur.  The two biggest are the temperature difference at the water surface and several thousand feet above, and the direction of the wind.  It is the second that gives rise to my thoughts that some people are just dense here in the Great Lakes Basin region.

In southwest Michigan, where I live, Lake Michigan is the closest large body of water and it is west of this region of the state.  If the wind is out of the west, then it passes over the Lake Michigan.  If it is out of the south or east, then it most certainly doesn’t.  If it is out of the north or northeast, there could be some enhancement from Lake Superior or Lake Huron but that effect is minimal this far away.  So if we have a storm system moving in with low-level winds from an easterly or southerly direction, then the lake isn’t involved here in SW MI.  It is that simple.  Sometimes, even when the winds are out of the west, lake-effect is not really happening if the temperature difference is too low.  My point is that we can actually have snow even if there were no Great Lakes.  Need proof?  Look almost anywhere else on the planet that gets snow and there are no nearby large bodies of water upstream from the storm.  Geez….

4.  Weather vs. Climate

Ok, this one is not strictly a winter related thing but because my home area gets (usually) a decent amount of snow each winter, and that climate change is a politically charged topic these days, this distinction comes up a lot more it seems during winter.

Weather is the day-to-day fluctuation in temperature, precipitation, winds, etc…  Climate is the statistical data involved in a longer time period of those day-to-day fluctuations.  Usually we are speaking on a time frame of several decades but you have to be careful on that.  Sometimes it is millennia or longer.  Both weather and climate change over time but here are two simple examples to help elucidate the differences:

a. Cool days in mid May.  We have all experienced a cool period in mid May in the temperate regions in the Northern Hemisphere (in deference to any international readers) such that we need a jacket.  But I bet you dollars to donuts that you are expecting to need your fan, air conditioner, and shorts by mid to late June.  Why?  Because you darn well know what the climate has told you…it is hotter in June than in May.  That doesn’t mean you cannot have some cool spells in June but on average (notice the statistical term, “average” which we can equate to “climate”), you are going to have warmer weather in June.

b. Turbulent flow in a pipe.  We have all seen water rushing out of a pipe at great force.  So great it is white with all the entrained air.  Now what I may state might come as a surprise, but no one can accurate calculate the direction a single “particle” of water will go from moment to moment in turbulent flow.  If I put in a bunch of tiny chopped up bits of aluminum foil into the water so I can visualize what is going on, I cannot tell you for certain which foil particle I watch where it will go where from moment to moment.  That is like weather.  But I can calculate to great accuracy how many foil particles will exit the pipe in a give time period if I know the pressure difference, pipe roughness, mass or volume flow rate, and pipe size. That is climate.

It is actually easier, in some ways, to predict climate than weather.  The reason is that some short-term factors that are highly important in weather prediction average away in climate prediction.

 5. “Well, I Heard That We Are Getting (fill in the blank) Weather…”

 Every time we have a storm coming in the winter with a chance of frozen precipitation you hear from four different people, four different predictions.  This is what I call the “Well I heard that…” and they go on to say what they heard.  Ok gang.  Here we go on this point.  There is more than one TV station or radio station reporting the weather.  Even if they are getting their information from the same source such as the local office of the National Weather Service (NWS) or a private forecasting company, they usually have seconds to repeat it and some news casters just leave too much out or ignore bits of data giving a forecast something that sounds completely different from another station.  I have heard many times a forecast from the NWS given by say a local radio station (and they say the forecast comes from the NWS) where they left out the critical part of having a winter weather warning in effect!  Umm.. that is a big deal.

Sometimes a forecast has a low confidence involved.  You can read the forecast discussions from a local NWS office and glean their confidence level.  When it is low, some folks such as TV personnel may deviate and issue their own forecasts.  When these folks are educated and trained, they might be a better source but often they aren’t.

 But here is the biggest issue involved and the simplest:  Are you actually listening to the forecast for your area?  I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone told me what they heard that turns out to be a forecast for a place that is significantly far enough away to be irrelevant.  There is no excuse for that.  If you have ever paid any real attention you know that forecasts are given for counties or groups of counties.  If you aren’t in those counties you are getting the wrong forecast!  If can make the difference between three inches of rain and three feet of snow.

6.  Blizzard vs. Snow Storm

A blizzard is a subset of a snow storm.  But there is a difference.  A blizzard has to meet a certain set of criteria or it is not a blizzard.  I know Webster’s dictionary is generalized but use your head.  When a blizzard is coming or a warning issued, there is a specific reason and with that specific reason comes a specific definition.  I learned this as a kid watching the weather channel in the mid 1980’s.  It is not rocket science.  Since winter weather watches and warnings are issued from the National Weather Service here are their specific definitions:


(abbrev. BLZD)- A blizzard means that the following conditions are expected to prevail for a period of 3 hours or longer:

  • Sustained wind or frequent gusts to 35 miles an hour or greater; and
  • Considerable falling and/or blowing snow (i.e., reducing visibility frequently to less than a ¼ mile)

Blizzard Warning

Issued for winter storms with sustained or frequent winds of 35 mph or higher with considerable falling and/or blowing snow that frequently reduces visibility to 1/4 of a mile or less. These conditions are expected to prevail for a minimum of 3 hours.

Note something interesting here.  A blizzard is not defined by how much snow falls.  You can get three feet of snow and technically it may not be a blizzard if the winds are too light.  Bam!  There ya go.  Stop saying blizzard every time you gotta shovel snow or brush off your damn car.

I like winter.  But I get sick of the same misunderstandings year after year especially since for the vast majority of them, they are accurately discussed in various forms in the media year after year.  I too feel so much like a broken record that after this blog, I’m not going to bother to educate on these topics anymore.  You want to sound like an ignorant person at best or even an idiot at worse, have at it.

Categories: fun sciencey stuff.

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