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Why does lightning strike? And answers to 50 other weather questions

  • What causes sea smoke?

    Steam can hover over water when cold air comes into contact with warm water. This kind of fog is more likely to happen in winter. While it’s not dangerous to breathe, sea smoke can make it hard for ship captains to see and navigate through the water.



  • What is a flash freeze?

    If it’s raining or snowing and the temperature falls quickly, the wet ground can freeze. This isn’t the same as freezing rain, which occurs when rain falls and freezes on a surface that is 32 degrees or below.



  • What’s the difference between drifting and blowing snow?

    When the wind picks up snow from the ground, it’s called drifting snow as long as it’s below 8 feet. Once it gets above that height, meteorologists refer to it as blowing snow, according to the Weather Channel. Snow can drift or blow during a storm or after the snow has stopped falling.



  • What is a whiteout?

    Sometimes it’s impossible to see through a snowstorm. If the ground is already covered in snow, fresh snowfall under gray clouds can make the landscape blur together. Travel can become dangerous or impossible when this happens.




  • What is the polar vortex?

    In January 2019, parts of the Midwest experienced a cold snap that plunged temperatures well below -20 degrees Fahrenheit. The “polar vortex,” a mass of frigid air that is usually over the Arctic, was to blame. It gets the name vortex because it turns counterclockwise, like a hurricane. When this low-pressure air system is weakened, which can happen when temperatures are warm, the polar vortex can push cold air south. This is likely to happen more often with climate change.




  • Why does snow make it quiet?

    When snow accumulates, it holds onto sound waves. “Snow is going to be porous, and typically porous materials such as fibers and foams...absorb sound pretty well,” David Herrin, a professor at the University of Kentucky’s College of Engineering, told AccuWeather.



  • How can it thunder and lightning during a snowstorm?

    When warm air from the ground rises into an atmosphere that is below freezing, it can cause electrical charges to separate. Lightning can strike during a snowstorm when the charge needs to be equalized, just like in a summer thunderstorm. These conditions don’t happen often in winter, which makes thundersnow rare. And since snow dampens sound, thunder may be hard to hear even when it happens.



  • What is a frost quake?

    In early winter of 2019, people in the Midwest reported “loud booms and banging noises” when temperatures fell below zero, reported ABC News. What they heard was a “frost quake,” which is technically called a cryoseism. It can happen when the ground gets full of water or ice. This can freeze the soil and rock around it, which makes a loud noise if it cracks.


  • What is a snow drought?

    When mountain snow melts in the spring and summer, water from the snowpack flows down into streams and reservoirs below. If it snows less than usual, or warm temperatures melt snow before it can build up, it means less water is available during the hot months. This can be detrimental to anything that depends on that water supply: farmers, fisheries, and outdoor tourism like skiing or river rafting. In 2019, snow drought affected areas in South Central Alaska, according to the NIDIS.


  • How does hail form?

    Air currents in thunderstorms can pull rain up into a part of the atmosphere that’s really cold. The raindrops freeze and turn into balls of ice. When they get heavier than the updraft, gravity pulls them to the ground. Hail causes up to $22 billion in damage a year, reported CBS News. As Earth’s atmosphere continues to warm, hailstorms could get worse.



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