Saturday, February 5, 2011

Winter Vocabulary in the Northern Plains

While winter wreaks havoc across the entire country, it's come to my attention that here in the Northern Plains we use some special terminology, thanks to our enemy, the wind. Here are three terms and their definitions:

(Ground blizzard, North Dakota, I-94. The videographer notes, "between Bismarck and Fargo on Jan. 7, 2011. Temperature near zero, north wind at 30 to 40 mph, visibility not good. We had to watch for cracks in the pavement because we couldn't see the lanes."

ground blizzard--Ground blizzards occur when it is not snowing. The day may even be sunny, but if you are in a ground blizzard, you would have to look up to notice. During a ground blizzard, wind blows already fallen snow, so that at ground level, you seem to be in a blizzard. This is most likely to happen after a fresh snowfall in open areas where the ditches on either side are already full of snow.

Visibility is poor to nonexistent, making ground blizzard conditions very dangerous. Driving, you cannot see vehicles or obstacles ahead or around you. When the wind whips the snow across the road, you cannot see if the pavement is slick.

Recent northern South Dakota ground blizzard conditions caused 150 motorists, many of them semi drivers, to be stranded on I-29 for up to 48 hours! Thank goodness for this little oasis. Here's the scene on the highway, from a news station's helicopter:

(example of finger drifts)

finger drifts--Finger drifts occur when wind blows snow across the road over a period of time and the snow builds up with horizontal "fingers" stretching into the road. Easy to pass through when fresh, after the wind has whipped them into shape, they become hard as rocks and can cause considerable damage to vehicles who ram them.

(from, Coed conwydd yn cysgodi Moel yr Iwrch / Conifers sheltering Moel yr Iwrch for SH8354, © Copyright Ceri Thomas and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

shelter belt--Sometimes called a "wind break," a shelter belt is an area of planted tree rows, often around a country farmstead, to protect it from the wind. The example photo above is in Great Britain.

What special climate or weather teminology do you use in your region?


  1. This is so interesting, Jane. I'm a serious weather nut and love learning anything to do with the subject. I wasn't familiar with any of these terms. I believe the helicopter pilot referred to the truck drivers as having drifted out. That's also a new term for me.

    Here on Long Island we'll talk about a marine layer blowing in off the south shore on summer mornings, causing low visibility. Hurricanes bring up talk of surges, also on the south shore, from the ocean. If I think of others I'll come back and post them. I know in New England they talk about frost heaves, but we don't use that term much around here.

  2. That helicopter video of the stranded cars is something.

    But it's funny to think of terms I've heard/used all my life, like finger drifts, as something others in a different geographical area has never heard!

  3. Toby, you taught me some new ones! Thanks for the info! Rose, yes--weather, news, politics, vocabulary--it's all local!

  4. The ground blizzard footage looks too familiar! Exactly what it looked like when I spun out my rental car driving west from Minot last year. My story ended fine, but I saw two cars on their tops (black ice had formed that afternoon) before watching the truck in front of me take flight and flip over causing me to panic and overcorrect.

  5. Jennifer, there is absolutely nothing funny about this!