The Van Trump Report

What’s a Snow Roller…and Other Weird and Rare Weather Phenomena

A lot of strange weather happens every day in some part of the world. While rain, snow, and drought is happening constantly and simultaneously in various places across the planet, some forms of weather are extreme in their nature and rarely experienced by most. A lot of weather patterns also tend to be unique to only certain environments. Whatever form the weather takes, meteorologists have come up with a lot of weird names to categorize it. Below are some whacky meteorological terms and the sometimes terrifying weather conditions they describe:

Ball Lightning: Just as the name implies, ball lightning is described as small balls of bright plasma-like light moving over the ground and then vanishing. Though usually associated with thunderstorms, the observed phenomenon is reported to last considerably longer than the split-second flash of a lightning bolt. The presumption of its existence has depended on reported public sightings, which have produced inconsistent findings but date back as far as Ancient Greece. Owing to the lack of reproducible data, the existence of ball lightning as a distinct physical phenomenon remains unproven.

Bombogenesis: Bombogenesis is the process by which a storm intensifies in a very short amount of time. The process of bombogenesis begins with another process called cyclogenesis, which occurs when an area of low pressure develops or strengthens. More extreme cases of this phenomenon are called explosive cyclogenesis by meteorologists and more commonly a “weather bomb.”

Catatumbo Lightning: The Catatumbo Lightning, also known as the Beacon of Maracaibo or the “everlasting storm”, is seasonal lightning around Lake Maracaibo in northern Venezuela. The region endures more than 160 storm nights a year. These lightning storms can last as long as 9 hours per day, with as many as 28 lightning strikes per minute. Scientists believe the storm, which occurs approximately three miles above the surface of the water, is caused by a mix of cold and warm air currents that occurs exactly where the lightning forms.

Fire Tornadoes: Fire and strong winds in the forest can sometimes – though rare – lead to two of the most hellish weather phenomenon on earth – fire whirls and fire tornadoes. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but meteorologists and fire scientists distinguish between them. The more common fire whirl is a spinning vortex of gas, smoke, and flame generated by wind shear, complex terrain, and other features. A narrow column rises vertically into the air, like a dust devil. With more intense heat, stronger updrafts, and enough dry fuel, a fire whirl grows into a fire tornado—a rotating funnel that extends from cloud to ground, moving at incredible speeds. In 2018, scientists discovered that a fire tornado accelerated California’s Carr Fire, which spun with the power of an EF-3 tornado and rose 17,000 feet above Earth.

Haboob: Haboobs are a specific type of dust storm that arise from thunderstorms and typically last about an hour. The name is derived from the Arabic word habb, which means “wind.” Because they can overrun a city in minutes with 40 mph winds and zero visibility, the haboob can be more dangerous than the storm itself. These dust storms can reach up thousands of feet in the air, and move across the landscape at highway speeds. Haboobs are most common across the desert southwest during the monsoon thunderstorm season, which typically lasts from July to September. Phoenix, Arizona, is considered the haboob capital of the US.

Heat Burst: Though a rare phenomena, the National Weather Service says heat bursts occur in the wake of dying thunderstorms, but other conditions have to be just right — the storm has to be high in the atmosphere and the air beneath must be hot and dry. When the storm rains into this arid environment, the water quickly evaporates. Evaporation takes heat energy out of the surrounding air and causes it to cool and contract, so we end up with a very dense parcel of air too heavy to stay up. It begins to fall through the atmosphere, fast, all of the moisture evaporates, and the dense air gets warmer as it approaches the ground at high speeds. When it hits, it suddenly delivers oppressively hot and dry air that can stay in place for hours.

Snow Roller: Little doughnut-like formations of rolled snow, aka snow rollers, look a lot like white wheat bales. They are extremely rare, requiring just the right mix of moisture, snow, wind, and temperature. The snow has to be a light dusting, sticky enough to adhere to itself but on a surface that it won’t cling to. The wind has to be strong enough to encourage these mounds of snow to curl up and form their signature loop, but not so strong that the whole thing gets blown apart. Alternatively, the snow could be on a hill and gently roll downslope to form the same shape.  

Sprites: Red lightning, also known as a “sprite”, is an intriguing weather phenomenon associated with certain very intense thunderstorms. While an ordinary lightning flash extends downward from the clouds to the ground, a sprite shoots way up into the upper reaches of the atmosphere – around 50 miles up. They are usually triggered by the discharges of positive lightning between an underlying thundercloud and the ground. They often occur in clusters and appear as luminous red-orange flashes, but compared to ordinary flashes of lightning they can be huge in size, often as much as 30 miles across. However, red lightning only lasts for a millisecond or so and can not be easily seen from the ground because it occurs high above the cloud layer, making it difficult to study.

Virga: Virga is ghostly precipitation that never makes it to the ground. When the air beneath a cloud is very dry, precipitation falling through it evaporates before reaching Earth’s surface. What’s left are feathery streaks extending from the cloud’s base, capturing the path the rain or ice took before becoming water vapor. The evaporation process takes a lot of energy out of the surrounding air and causes it to cool. That cold air may then sink very quickly and dump a dangerously concentrated parcel of air and water/hail in a microburst. But, according to the National Weather Service, virga for the most part is a visual effect. It shows up on radar as a typical rain or snow shower, but there’s no evidence of that at the surface.

Volcanic Lightning: As the name suggests, volcanic lightning is a lightning storm that occurs during a volcanic eruption. Like all thunderstorms, volcanic lightning happens when static electricity builds up in the atmosphere before being released in the form of a lightning bolt. For volcanic lightning near the ground, research suggests the cause is the rubbing together of individual ash particles. Sky-high volcanic lightning has a more surprising cause: ice. Scientists think that as the plume of ash and water vapor rises from the volcano, ice begins to form in its highest layers. From there, lightning forms the same way it does in a thundercloud: ice crystals colliding build up enough of an electric charge to trigger a lightning strike.

Waterspouts: Tornadic waterspouts have the same characteristics as a land-based tornado and are usually accompanied by high winds and severe thunderstorms. The less dangerous type of waterspout is known as the fair weather waterspout, which are very weak and only last a few minutes. It also differs in that it forms on the surface of the water and doesn’t tend to move very far. The most extreme waterspouts can literally suck fish (or frogs) out of the water, carry them into the cloud, and deposit them onto land. (Sources: US National Weather Service, Discover Magazine, The Atlantic, Wiki)

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