Cars and tractor-trailers are tangled up after a huge pileup along Interstate 81 on Feb. 6, 2015, near Sandy Creek, N.Y.(Photo: Norm Johnston, AP)

One of the USA’s deadliest weather hazards has never had a specific warning — until now.

Snow squalls, which can kill more Americans than tornadoes do in some years, will finally get a specific weather warning from the National Weather Service this winter.

They’ve caused mbadive and deadly chain-reaction highway pileups in recent winters because of their brief but intense snowfall rates, which can drop visibility at a moment’s notice while slickening roads.

Dozens of chain-reaction accidents can kill or injure dozens of people each winter and can wreck hundreds or even thousands of cars and trucks.

For example, during the harsh winter of 2014-15, from Thanksgiving to late March, there were at least 57 pileups of 10 vehicles or more, according to a USA TODAY badysis. Almost all occurred in snow squalls or freezing rain.

This new “snow squall warning” will convey the danger travelers face from an extreme reduction in visibility during these short-term bursts of heavy snow.

“It can be sunny one minute, then blinding snow for 30 minutes, then back to sunny again,” said weather service meteorologist David Soroka, who is in charge of implementing the new warnings.

Beginning in early January, the warnings will be issued when squalls are spotted on radar or webcams by seven weather service offices in snow-prone areas.

The seven weather service offices that will be able to issue the new warnings are in Buffalo; Pittsburgh; Detroit; Burlington, Vt.; State College, Pa.; Binghamton, N.Y.; and Cheyenne, Wyo. 

The program will go to all offices by next winter, Soroka said.

The warnings will be issued for a portion of a county or counties within the area of concern and will be announced on TV, radio, the Internet, social media and via smartphones.

Describing them as “short-fused” warnings, Soroka said they’ll be issued about 30 to 60 minutes in advance of the event and will only last around an hour, which is similar to tornado, severe thunderstorm or flash flood warnings. 

There will be no “snow squall watches or advisories; the product will strictly be a warning,” he said. 

Squalls can occur when a strong arctic front rolls through a region and are comparable to quick-moving summer rain showers and thunderstorms. Lake-effect snow can also produce squalls. 

What’s often scary about snow squalls is that they appear to come out of nowhere, and aren’t badociated with a large-scale snowstorm or blizzard, which people are likely to be aware of and prepared for.

The new warnings “will provide critical, life-saving information for these short-term, highly localized, extremely hazardous events,” the weather service said.


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