Extreme weather is more common these days. We are used to hearing about unusually strong storms , tornadoes and even the polar Vortex ,. But atmospheric events can get much more bizarre–and so can the names we give them. These bizarre weather phenomena have fascinating names.
Atmospheric River/Pineapple Express
A “river” of water vapor in the sky that can grow to 2,000 miles long, 500 miles wide and two miles deep. These rainstorms can be driven by strong winds from the midocean regions to the western coasts. The heaviest atmospheric rivers strike the U.S. and Canada–where they can carry vapor equivalent to 25 times the flow of the Mississippi River and can produce the biggest floods in a century. In 1861 one turned California’s Central Valley into an inland sea 300 miles long and 20 miles wide. If it comes from Hawaii, some forecasters call this an atmospheric river.
A bomb cyclone is a rapidly growing storm that brings heavy rain and snow. It is generated by bombogenesis–when a storm’s barometric pressure plummets by at least 24 millibars in 24 hours, causing the system to “blow up” in strength. The nastiest nor’easters (storms that spin up along the U.S. East Coast and typically result in strong winds over the Northeast) are often caused by bombogenesis.
A widespread, severe and long-lived windstorm that moves rapidly in a straight line, usually driven by thunderstorms. The term derecho–a Spanish word meaning “straight”–designates a storm with gusts of at least 58 miles per hour and “straight-line wind” damage that extends more than 240 miles [see “Straight-Line Wind/Downburst/Microburst” at bottom]. An August 2020 derecho that raced across Iowa reportedly damaged thousands of homes and millions of acres of corn and soybeans, representing a major fraction of the state’s cropland.
A spinning vortex of hot air and gases, which rises quickly from an intense wildfire, can carry smoke, debris, and flames hundreds upon hundreds of feet into atmosphere. These whirls range from a few feet to 500 feet in diameter, and the largest ones can carry embers long distances.
The rapid onset of drought, triggered by low precipitation, abnormally high temperature, strong winds and searing sun. Flash droughts accelerate evapotranspiration–soil and plants giving up excessive moisture–which can ruin crops.
There are hard hail pellets and soft snowflakes. Graupel, a type of soft hail, is in between. In uncommon atmospheric circumstances, very cold water droplets aloft freeze onto snowflakes and fall with them, hitting the ground with a squishy plop.
In Arabic, this term refers to a strong, violent dust storm or the sandstorm. As more intense haboobs cut across the Middle East and northern Africa, media coverage has been extensive. Winds can drive dust at up to 60 mph, crippling transportation and infiltrating people’s lungs, even though these events often pass in less than an hour.
Fog is made of water vapor, yet sometimes ice particles can create the ephemeral mistWhen the air temperature is below freezing and relative humidity is greater than 100 percent–an infrequent combination–these ice crystals can form and hover to form a “pogonip,” or ice fog. Pogonips are most common in deep mountain valleys. The term is usually credited to the Shoshone peoples: it is said to be derived from the Shoshone word payinappih, which means “cloud.”
Saskatchewan Screamer/Alberta Clipper
A fast-moving, low pressure weather system that forms when cold Arctic air descends into Canada’s province Saskatchewan and moist Pacific Ocean air simultaneously arrives to the west. The resultant collision creates howling winds that blow southeast towards the U.S. Great Lakes area, whipping up local whiteouts and blizzards even though snowfall totals are low. It’s called an Alberta clipper when a similar system begins further west in the province.
A surge of extremely cold, high-pressure air that forms over Siberia and travels across the North Pole to drop into Canada or the United States, causing temperatures to plummet. Sometimes, these systems move eastward and grip Japan.
The term “snowmageddon”, and its colorful synonyms, may be more popular than meteorology. The terms have become popular in the media, as they are used when snowstorms engulf an area that is usually not subject to snow. One famous case was the January 2016 blizzard that struck Washington, D.C., shutting down the city and the federal government for several days. Another “snowpocalypse” befell the city again in February 2010.
Some storms over the ocean, such as hurricanes, can cause very large waves to crash into the seafloor. Sometimes, this can cause vibrations similar to an earthquake on Earth’s surface. Although researchers only discovered the phenomenon a few years ago, by studying seismic records and storm tracks back in time, they found that thousands of stormquakes had occurred from 2006 to 2019 near the U.S. and Canadian coasts. Some were as strong as a magnitude 3.5 earthquake.
Strong thunderstorms can produce tornadoes but also powerful winds without rotation. These are known as “straight-line winds” and draw high-altitude air straight down. When it hits the ground, this “downburst” fans out in a straight line, with wind that can exceed 100 mph, causing dangerous conditions and property damage. A “microburst”, or a very localized downburst, is an example.
This word is quite self-explanatory. It describes a thunder or lightning storm that produces snow instead of rain. It can be strange to stand in a snowy storm, given how strongly thunderstorms are associated with rain.
A sudden, powerful gust of cold, dense, air that descends from mountaintops to the coast. This down blast can cause havoc on ships and cause severe flooding along the coast. Williwaws are most common at high latitudes such as the Aleutian Islands off Alaska or the Strait of Magellan near Chile’s southern tip. Gore Vidal’s first novel was Williwaw, which he wrote while stationed on a U.S. Army supply ship in the Aleutian Islands.