"Thundersnow" Facts: Mysterious Storms Explained

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The University of Missouri's Market has done research showing that most of the time 6 inches (15 centimeters) of snow will accumulate within a 70-mile (113-kilometer) radius of a thundersnow event.

(Related news: "Volcanic Lightning Sparked by 'Dirty Thunderstorms,' Study Finds.")

How to See Thundersnow

Experiencing thundersnow requires being in the right place at the right time, said University of Missouri atmospheric scientist Patrick Market, who has received funding from the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Even then, he said, you probably won't see anything but white.

"In a really nice thundersnow event, the sky [simply] gets bright. You don't see a lightning bolt. There's nothing for a second or two, and then you hear a rumble of thunder."

The best spots for catching thundersnow in person are Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado, and the eastern shores of Lake Ontario, Market said—two hot spots that he has pinpointed in his research.

Thundersnow can also occur along coasts, experts say, because that's where moisture from warm water can easily evaporate into the colder, drier air above.

(Watch an interactive animation of a thunderstorm.)

Thundersnow to Aid Weather Forecasts?

Market and colleagues track thundersnow storms in the field. After the researchers identify a winter storm, they release weather balloons, which are meant to reveal how the atmosphere becomes unstable.

By collecting data on pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind speed and direction—the five key factors meteorologists use to make predictions—Market and colleagues hope their thundersnow studies can help make future weather forecasts more accurate.

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