What's a snow squall? Monday's storm produced a new type of warning for Utah

A Utah Transit Authority TRAX rail car's light shines through a snow squall in downtown Salt Lake City early Monday evening. It was the first time Salt Lake City was included in a snow squall warning, according to the National Weather Service.

A Utah Transit Authority TRAX rail car's light shines through a snow squall in downtown Salt Lake City early Monday evening. It was the first time Salt Lake City was included in a snow squall warning, according to the National Weather Service. (Carter Williams, KSL.com)


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SALT LAKE CITY — It seemed as if Monday's storm had many Utahns asking the same question.

What the heck is a squall?

The National Weather Service issued a handful of brief snow squall warnings as the storm arrived quickly through various parts of Utah, as well as through the western parts of Wyoming.

Utahns from Brigham City to Spanish Fork were sent emergency alerts on their phones Monday as a result of these warnings. It was the first time that the Wasatch Front had ever received such a warning because the warning is "a relatively new type of warning for the western United States," the weather service tweeted early Tuesday morning.

"Slow down or delay travel! Be ready for a sudden drop to near zero visibility and icy roads in heavy snow," the alert read.

The first alert was issued for parts of northern Utah just before 4 p.m. Monday. As more alerts were issued across parts of the Wasatch Front and Wasatch Backcountry, Google Trends data show there was a sudden spike in the search term "squall" that peaked at about 5 p.m. and leveled off as the warnings expired.

This graph shows a spike in the search term "squall" among Utah residents Monday and Tuesday.
This graph shows a spike in the search term "squall" among Utah residents Monday and Tuesday. (Photo: Google Trends)

The question floated around the social media sphere as well, with many asking about it — so much so that the National Weather Service ended a busy night of storm updates by explaining a "squall" in a series of tweets.

"Snow squalls are intense, but limited duration, periods of moderate to heavy snowfall, accompanied by gusty surface winds resulting in reduced visibilities and whiteout conditions," the weather service explains. "Rapidly falling temperatures in conjunction with the snow can cause dangerous impacts to the surface transportation."

The agency added a squall line is "somewhat akin" to a line of strong thunderstorms that Utahns are likely more accustomed to during the summer months. They are intense but short in duration, hence the brief timespan of the warning.

It's different from a blizzard, which is defined as blowing or falling snow with winds of at least 35 mph, which reduce "visibilities to a quarter of a mile or less for at least three hours," according to the weather service.

Just because squalls are shorter in duration doesn't mean they can't produce an impressive amount of snow. For instance, the weather service station at the Salt Lake City International Airport received 2.8 inches of snow from the short squall that passed through there Monday.

This also led to dozens of crashes and slide-offs on Utah roads. The Utah Highway Patrol reported that it responded to 75 crashes and 128 motorist assists in the span between 4 p.m. and about 8:30 p.m. Monday.

So if you end up seeing a snow squall warning alert again in the future, just be prepared for tricky road conditions and a good amount of snow in a short period of time.

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