Snow Squalls: NWS working on new system to warn when the hazard will strike
Snow squalls are low-topped thunderstorms that dump intense rates of the blinding white stuff, and they can cause a literal whirlwind of panic if you're caught driving in one.
Now the National Weather Service (NWS) has a way to protect us, and we just need to listen.
"These events are killing more people per year than almost any other phenomena that we deal with," said Greg DeVoir, Senior Meteorologist with the NWS.
We've felt the effects of this dangerous winter hazard numerous times in recent years:
In Loganville on I-83 during January 2017, an incident involving 50 vehicles left one dead and nine injured. In Fredericksburg on I-78 in February 2016, a crash involving more than 60 vehicles caused three casualties and left 70 people injured. In Loganton on I-80 in December 2001, an incident involving 100 vehicles left 8 dead and 45 injured.
"The number of people injured and killed - when you see it coming and you're issuing statements on it and it happens anyway - it stays with you," said DeVoir.
According to the NWS, a snow squall is one of the deadliest weather hazards in Pennsylvania, second only to flooding. And that deserves a warning system.
DeVoir said, "They're analogous to severe storm warnings so the size of a severe thunderstorm warning - or smaller - tornado warnings - same size."
The highly localized warnings will be available via EAS alerts on radio and TV, as well as soon through both phone alerts and vehicle GPS systems.
"We've gotten really really good at forecasting them," said DeVoir.
That is in part thanks to the newly launched GOES 16 Satellite and advancements in computer modeling.
"That's one of the reasons we're trying to say Hey we know these are coming - a lot of times we know they're coming one or two days in advance," said DeVoir, "So just having a warning product now is huge - it says this is a threat to your life - pay attention know what to do."
The best thing to do in these situations, is of course, to stay off the roads.
DeVoir said, "And we're not trying to scare anyone at all we're just saying we don't want you on the highway when these things hit."
It's like driving when you haven't scraped the snow of the windshield.
"You lose all perspective," said DeVoir. "I don't think you want to be on the highway when someone has a little spin-out in front of you, and you've got how many thousand of pounds behind you in trucks that can't stop."
The ultimate goal is to save lives.
"There is no safe place on a highway when a squall hits - that's the bottom line - that's it," said DeVoir.
The warning system is in a testing phase this winter beginning on January 3, so not everything will be in place immediately. For example, wireless emergency alerts aren't available yet. Depending on the mobile phone providers' cooperation, they hope to have alerts on you cell phones by next year.
They're also working on upgrading the EAS system in Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, you will hear alerts on weather radios and see them on highway signs.