Beginning in 2018, National Weather Service forecast offices began issuing a special type of winter warning, a Snow Squall Warning. The goal of these alerts was to prevent multi-vehicle pileups and deaths on the roads due to extreme snowfall rates. Effective Monday, Nov. 7, some National Weather Service forecast offices will begin triggering the Wireless Emergency Alert feature on your phone for exceptionally impactful snow squalls.

What is a snow squall?

In simplest terms, a snow squall is a very heavy burst of snow. The National Weather Service defines a snow squall as intense snowfall lasting between 30-60 minutes and causing dangerous travel conditions because of snowy, icy roads and a near to complete “white-out.” Squalls are often accompanied by gusty winds that blow around snow, causing even greater drops in visibility.

Snow squalls can occur in intense lake effect snow bands, along cold fronts, and especially along strong Arctic cold fronts bringing in surges of bitter cold Arctic air. If you’re a snow enthusiast, you will enjoy when these occur. Squalls usually result in a very fast accumulation of snowfall. However, these bursts can be dangerous when driving.

What does a Snow Squall Warning mean?

Warnings for squalls are intended to alert people on the roads. Many multi-car pileups on roads and interstates during the winter occur because of snow squalls. Squalls occurring when road temperatures are near or below freezing will generally lead to roads conditions turning slick very quickly. If a vehicle traveling in front of you were to crash or spinout, you may not be able to see it and would have very little time to react due to the longer distance needed to slow down on snow-covered roads.

Snow squall warnings are intended to alert drivers to these conditions so they can make adjustments to travel, preferably avoiding it, until the squall passes. If you are driving and a snow squall warning is issued in the area you’re traveling, be alert for a sudden drop in visibility and a rapid decline in road conditions. If you can safely do so, consider exiting interstates and waiting out the intense snow before resuming travel. If that isn’t an option, turn on your headlights and hazard lights. Drive slowly while being extra alert for obstructions in the road.

When and why will the National Weather Service trigger alerts on your phone?

Beginning Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, the National Weather Service will begin classifying the most extreme squalls. Not all squalls will cause fatal car pile-ups, but they will all cause reduced visibility and make travel more dangerous. However, the major-impact snow squalls can have deadly consequences. The National Weather Service wants to make sure you know when you’re driving into an area where such a snow squall is occurring or is about to occur.

Show Squall Warnings are issued like severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings. The alerts will be short in duration compared to other winter alerts like winter weather advisories or winter storm warnings. They will be issued for a small area and reissued down-wind of the squall as it continues moving away from the initial warning area. They are issued in localized polygons rather than at the entire county level.

The National Weather Service will be able to classify a squall as a general snow squall or a “significant” squall. A general snow squall will still slicken roads and drop visibility but it may not be at the level that warrants making everyone’s phone go off. The snow squalls classified as “significant” will trigger the alert on your phone, aiming to alert drivers that dangerous driving conditions are occurring or being indicated on radar.

Sample of what a Wireless Emergency Alert for a Snow Squall Warning would look like.

What parts of the country will see these warnings?

In our area, the National Weather Service forecast office in Pittsburgh will initially be able to issue these warnings. NWS Pittsburgh covers Columbiana, Mercer, and Lawrence counties in our viewing area. Most offices in New England and in the Rocky Mountain region in the west are able to issue the hybrid, known as “impact based,” warnings that set off your phone now.

The other forecast office in our viewing area, NWS Cleveland, is waiting on a software update to be able to issue this hybrid warning. The National Weather Service forecast office in Cleveland covers Trumbull and Mahoning counties. A Snow Squall warning can still be issued, but they will not be able to issue an alert that will make your phone go off yet.

The National Weather service says all other forecast offices, including Cleveland, should be able to issue the impact based warnings that set off your phone by February 2023. The following offices have the ability to issue the Snow Squall Warnings that can alert your phone as of November 7th: Missoula (MSO), Great Falls (TFX), Pocatello (PIH), Elko (LKN), Salt Lake City (SLC), Flagstaff (FGZ), Cheyenne (CYS), Riverton (RIW), Grand Junction (GJT), Boulder (BOU), Pueblo (PUB), North Platte (LBF), Caribou (CAR), Gray (GYX), Burlington (BTV), Boston (BOX), Albany (ALY), Buffalo (BUF), Binghamton (BGM), New York City (OKX), State College (CTP), Pittsburgh (PBZ), Charleston WV (RLX), Sterling (LWX), Philadelphia (PHI).

The National Weather Service offices highlighted in red are able to issue impact based warnings for snow squalls as of Monday, Nov. 7, 2022. Snow squall warnings issued by the highlighted offices for intense snow squalls, considered to be “significant” and posing a major danger to drivers, would set off your phone. The rest of the offices are expected to have the ability to issue such warnings by February 2023.

What other warnings from the National Weather Service will cause your phone to go off?

The following warnings from the National Weather Service would cause your phone to go off with a special emergency alert tone if you were in or very close to an area included in the alert:
-Tsunami Warnings
-Tornado Warnings
-Severe Thunderstorm Warnings (only if the storm is classified as “destructive,” meaning it is producing or expected to produce wind gusts to 80+MPH or baseball-sized, 2.75″ diameter, hail or larger)
-Flash Flood Warnings (only when the flooding is considered “considerable” meaning significantly life-threatening or damaging to property or “catastrophic” meaning a violent and extremely dangerous flash flood event)
-Hurricane Warnings
-Typhoon Warnings
-Storm Surge Warnings
-Extreme Wind Warnings (usually issued in areas receiving intense impacts from major hurricanes)
-Dust Storm Warnings
-Snow Squall Warnings (only if considered “significant” and causing major danger to drivers caught in the squall)