What The Heck … Are Snow Squalls, And Where Do They Come From?

There were two Snow Squall Warnings issued in southern Wyoming on Monday. Although squall has long been a term to describe short, intense, wind-driven storms at sea, it's use with a snowstorm is relatively new.

Andrew Rossi

February 27, 20247 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

The National Weather Service Office in Cheyenne issued a pair of Snow Squall Warnings in the southeast corner of Wyoming on Tuesday, both covering the southern portions of Albany and Laramie counties.

They were issued and lifted between 4 and 6 a.m. And while any warning issued by the National Weather Service should be taken seriously, one saying to be on the lookout for snow squalls might be worth a second look.

Because, what the heck is a snow squall, anyway?

Squall has long been a term to describe a short, intense, wind-driven storm at sea, but it’s only in the last few years it’s become associated with snow when the National Weather Service added it to its glossary of warnings.

While snow squalls may be a relatively new term in weather circles, there’s nothing new about what they are. Most people in Wyoming who haven’t heard of a snow squall have probably experienced one.

What Is It?

The National Weather Service says they’re “a key wintertime hazard” that “move in and out quickly, and typically las less than an hour.” They can bring sudden white-out conditions combined with plummeting temperatures and icy roads “in just a few minutes.”

Most people would call that a blizzard, and they wouldn’t be necessarily wrong. They’d be categorically wrong.

“How it differs from a blizzard is (that) it’s a very short, quick burst that typically only lasts 30 to 45 minutes, at most,” said NWS Cheyenne meteorologist Lauren Kubelka-Gross. “It can cause very low visibility and strong winds, followed by a flash freeze or much colder temperatures behind it.”

While blizzards bring long-term impacts to a region, often lasting for hours or days, snow squalls are like enraged rodents: small, fast and furious.

Kubelka-Gross described a snow squall as “a convective line of snow” rather than an entire region enveloped by hazardous winter conditions.

That’s why NWS Cheyenne issued two snow squall warnings Tuesday morning. The developing winter conditions couldn’t be described as anything else.

“All of our warnings or advisories are more long-term warnings, usually around six to 12 hours or more,” she said. “These conditions deteriorate so rapidly, but you come out of it just as rapidly. We didn’t want those longer warnings.”

No Squabbles

Squalls are not only confined to winter. Kubelka-Gross said squalls can happen during summer, too, manifesting as strong but short-lived thunderstorms.

“It'll be a really strong line of thunderstorms, usually confined to a very narrow line,” she said. “We typically call it a squall line. You'll experience strong winds, with the strong thunderstorms behind it.”

However, the NWS typically won’t issue squall warnings during the summer. A Severe Thunderstorm Warning is enough if squall lines are detected in summer. So, why isn’t a Winter Storm Warning issued for a squall in winter?

Kulbelka-Gross said Snow Squall Warnings are relatively new for the NWS, which started issuing such warnings within the last few years. But the distinction between Snow Squall and Winter Storm Warnings is important.

“Snow Squall Warnings are geared toward frequently traveled roadways since the main impacts are going to be experienced on the roads or outdoors when a snow squall passes through your area,” she said. “Winter storm warnings would be for long-term impacts, that impacts over 12 to 24 hours or more.”

So, add “Squall Central” to the list of nicknames for Wyoming’s infamous Interstate 80 like The Guantlet, Snow-Chi-Minh Trial and that I-80 stands for “in use 80 days a year.”

They’re No Joke

While usually brief, snow squalls are no joke.

The NWS cautions that during snow squalls, “unrestricted visibilities can turn into whiteout conditions in a matter of seconds.” In less than an hour, roads can rapidly freeze over and heavy snow can quickly accumulate, increasing the risk of spinouts and crashes.

Kulbelka-Gross compared the Snow Squall Warning to a Tornado Warning regarding its urgency. If a Snow Squall Warning is issued in Wyoming, pay attention.

In the event of a Snow Squall Warning, the NWS Cheyenne will get essential information to Wyomingites in the affected area so they can drive and travel safely. However, Kulbelka-Gross said the two early-morning warnings Tuesday were issued so they wouldn’t cause too much commotion.

“In previous years, your phone would have blown up, like it does for a tornado warning or something like that,” she said. “This year, we changed it so they don't all blow up people's phones. We’re trying to adjust the warnings based on the impacts of the area. Since this one was so early in the morning, it was before most people were awake. So, we opted to use our baseline storm warning that does not blow up everyone's phones.”

Wyomingites can expect more Snow Squall Warnings in the future, as they can develop anywhere, anytime. However, since the same safe winter driving techniques apply in storms and squalls, it’s not worth squabbling over too much.

Other stories in Cowboy State Daily’s “What The Heck …” series:

Why Are There Two 9-Ton Easter Island Heads In Rock Springs, Wyoming?

Why Is There A Bike On Top Of The Historic Lander Grain Elevator?

What The Heck … Is That Pile Of Teddy Bears In The Middle Of Nowhere Near Kemmerer?

What The Heck … Is Up With That Gillette House You Can Practically See From Space?

What The Heck Is … Ayres Natural Bridge, A Rare Wonder Everyone Drives By On I-25?

Who The Heck … Decorates That Tree In The Middle Of Nowhere North Of Sheridan?

Why The Heck … Does Green River, Wyoming, Have An Intergalactic Spaceport?

What The Heck … Is That Apocalyptic Ruined City On The Way To Yellowstone?

What The Heck … Is That 400-Foot Snaggle Tooth Rock North Of Rock Springs?

What The Heck … Is That Giant Mineral Dome In Thermopolis?

Why The Heck … Is A Camel The Mascot For A Wyoming High School?

What The Heck Is … That Old Stagecoach Stop Off I-80 Near Green River?

What The Heck Is … That Airplane On A 70-Foot Pole Along I-90 In Wyoming?

What The Heck Is … That 30-Foot Virgin Mary Statue On I-80 At The Nebraska Border?

What The Heck … Is That Giant Face On The Hill Overlooking Green River?

What The Heck Is … That 60-Foot Pyramid In the Middle Of Nowhere Off I-80?

What The Heck Is … The Vore Buffalo Jump Along I-90 In Northeast Wyoming?

What The Heck Is … With Betty Boop, Big Boy And That Sinclair Dinosaur North Of Cheyenne?

What The Heck Is … That Giant Abraham Lincoln Head Overlooking I-80 At The Top Of Sherman Hill?

What The Heck Is … That Lonely Grave On A Hill Overlooking Interstate 80?

What the heck is … That Lonely Tree Growing Out Of A Rock In The Middle Of I-80?

What The Heck Is … That Lonely Big Boy Statue In the Middle Of A Field In Wapiti, Wyoming?

What The Heck Is … That Giant 13.5-Foot-Tall Head On A Corner In Laramie, Wyoming?

Andrew Rossi can be reached at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Andrew Rossi

Features Reporter

Andrew Rossi is a features reporter for Cowboy State Daily based in northwest Wyoming. He covers everything from horrible weather and giant pumpkins to dinosaurs, astronomy, and the eccentricities of Yellowstone National Park.