What's the Difference Between a Snowstorm and a Blizzard?

Kelly Vaughan
·2 min read

If you're one of the millions of Americans who was hit with several inches (and in some cases, feet) of snow this week, then you may be wondering, what's the difference between a snowstorm and a blizzard, anyway? According to Mental Floss, a snowstorm doesn't necessarily involve snow—it could involve sleet, ice, or freezing rain and is usually accompanied by freezing temperatures. Snowstorms typically result in hazardous surfaces and poor driving conditions.

However, for a blizzard to be considered a "blizzard," winds must be sustained at 35 miles per hour; the snow must reduce visibility by a quarter mile or less; and the conditions must be expected to last for at least three hours. Therefore, blizzards generally tend to be more threatening than snowstorms. The combination is surprisingly rare, which is why winter storms are more likely to be characterized as a snowstorm rather than a blizzard.

Related: How to Safely Shovel Snow This Winter

"The biggest misconception [about blizzards] is snow accumulation. You can actually have a blizzard without snow falling. It's called a ground blizzard. As long as you have those conditions—the wind and low visibility—you can have a blizzard," says ABC News Meteorologist Melissa Griffin.

Some severe winter storms may not involve any snow at all. An ice storm can create hazardous driving and walking conditions when at least ¼ inch of ice has accumulated on exposed surfaces. This can lead to tree branches and power lines easily snapping under the weight of the ice, according to The NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL).

In order to stay safe during a blizzard, Griffin advises against driving through these severe conditions. "Don't travel, stay home, stock up on supplies for at least two days. But really, the worst thing you can do is get in your car and drive during a blizzard," she says.