Julia Nagel/Sun Senior Photographer

The Cornell community got caught in a wall of snow that moved through Ithaca.

March 24, 2024

Spring Arrives with Snow Squall Surprise

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Spring officially started on Tuesday, March 19. But just the next day, students trudged through the heavy snowfall that defines a Big Red winter.

At around 1:15 p.m. on Wednesday, the Cornell community got caught in a wall of snow that moved through Ithaca. In meteorology, that wall of snow is known as a snow squall, which refers to fast-moving bands of snow that can turn a clear day into blizzard-like conditions within a few minutes. 

The primary difference between a snow squall and a blizzard is how long the snowy and windy conditions last. Snow squalls are categorized by extreme conditions lasting for less than an hour. In contrast, blizzards’ conditions persist for at least three hours.

In New York State, snow squalls are a typical winter weather event. They generally form along a cold front and are accompanied by strong winds and rapid temperature drops.

The snow squalls that moved through Central New York on Wednesday were no exception. In the morning, a cold front moved over the Great Lakes. The cold front picked up moisture as it moved over the lake water. The moisture eventually turned into snow squalls that moved south across the state and rapidly swept through Ithaca. 

As the squalls moved through Cornell’s campus, a few flurries transformed into almost whiteout conditions in just a few minutes, greatly decreasing the visibility outside. In just an hour, the temperature fell 7 degrees Fahrenheit as winds gusted up to 30 mph and about an inch of snow fell. 

Because Ithaca is located downwind from Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, it generally receives lake-effect snow — snow formed from cold air moving over lake water — during the winter. With the right conditions, some lake-effect snow bands can turn into snow squalls that barrel across the region, although this transition to snow squalls does not happen every time there is lake-effect snow. 

Winter weather events like snow squalls can prove extremely dangerous, particularly by causing deadly highway pile-ups. On March 28, 2022, a snow squall moving through eastern Pennsylvania resulted in a pile-up on Interstate 81 involving 80 cars. The pile-up tragically caused six deaths and 24 injuries.

Due to the nature of snow squalls, quickly falling temperatures can cause a flash freeze on the roadways. When the flash freeze mixes with a rapid decrease in visibility, driving on the highway can quickly become dangerous. According to the National Weather Service, one of the best things to do if caught in a snow squall on the highway is to slow down, turn on hazard lights and exit the highway if possible. 

Although Wednesday made for a snowy start to spring, temperatures should be much warmer this week. Soon, the only thing Cornellians will have to worry about is pollen flying through the air and not snowflakes.

Nicole Collins can be reached at [email protected].